Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

The Follicle Factor

Will the Liberal leadership race be won by a hair's breadth?

“Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen.
Give me down to there, hair! Shoulder length or longer (hair!)
Here baby, there mama, ev’rywhere daddy, daddy…”

From "Hair"
Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado

As the Liberal leadership race heads into its final stretch, four of the eight remaining candidates are still jostling to take the lead. Right now the frontrunners are Bob Rae, the former NDP Ontario Premier recently labeled "biggest potential threat to Conservatives", and Michael Ignatieff, the Harvard academic and political neophyte whose inflammatory off-the-cuff remarks have garnered much negative media attention. As these two exchange sound bites on everything from Quebec's nationhood to Stephen Harper's dodgy foreign policy to each other's unsuitability for the job, the latest statistics suggest that Quebec's Stéphane Dion and Ontario's Gerard Kennedy (who was last week given a nod by Justin Trudeau and thus a major campaign boost) are also still very much in the running.

Yet if this were a US Presidential election, there would be no need for speculation. The winner would already be predetermined, and no amount of debating, campaigning or opinion polling would change the outcome. The victor would be Joe Volpe, closely followed by the three youngest contenders-Scott Brison, Gerard Kennedy and the only female candidate, Martha Hall Findlay.  Why? The answer is simple: Hair. Of the eight candidates still in the running for Liberal Party Leader (and, incidentally, seven of them have an admirable amount up on top while only five aced the bilingual test) Volpe wins the prize for weightiest head of hair-very impressive indeed for his fifty-eight years, even if it's not the impenetrable mass it once was. But it's still the thickest, and if you're running as a US president, the thicker the better. Hair, that is.

At the risk of being accused of jumping on the American-bashing bandwagon, I think it's worth noting that in the last four decades, all US presidential winners, from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, have possessed substantial heads of hair and, perhaps even more importantly, have been markedly more hirsute than their opponents.

Vice-President Richard Nixon's greasy sleeked back style didn't stand a chance against John F. Kennedy's glorious crown in 1960. Nixon had to bide his time-and his oily black slick-until 1968 when the Democrats made the mistake of fielding the receding Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Only then did Nixon finally get the job he'd coveted for so long, though his dreams would of course be cut short by Watergate. Still, even if he had stayed scandal-free, it's unlikely he'd have made it to the end of his second term because by the early seventies his slick was noticeably slackening.

Okay, there are a couple of exceptions (which, hopefully, only serve to prove the Follicle Factor rule). The first is Gerald Ford (1974-77), whose hairline had receded by the time he took office, but of course he's an exception in another way too-he was never actually elected but found himself in office by default after Nixon's hasty exit.

Ford's political good fortune wasn't to last. In the 1976 primaries, he famously dispensed with his competitor, Ronald Reagan, quipping, "[Reagan] doesn't dye his hair-he's just prematurely orange." Ford won the Republican nomination but went on to lose the presidency anyway-to Jimmy Carter, whose full, sandy crop seemed comparatively boyish. But just four years later, there was no orange in sight when a newly raven-haired Ronald Reagan dashed Carter's hopes of serving two terms. Ronnie won both the Republican nomination and the Presidency with his dense, dark, blue-tinged gloss.

The other exceptions to the Rule of Hair both had the last name "Bush", which actually might be explanation enough. In 1988, Democratic hopeful Michael Dukakis had dark, lustrous coverage so much more plentiful than that of George H. W. Bush that the presidency should have been a steal. Could it be that American voters found Dukakis' impossibly low brow-line and over-endowed eyebrows to be too much of a good thing? Anyway, in 1992, George Bush Senior's thinning tresses didn't stand a chance against Clinton's buoyant brush. And not even the rabid Republican far right could abate Bill's youthful bounce-in 1996 Bob Dole never really had a hope.

Perhaps the real reason for Al Gore's mind-boggling defeat in 2000 was the fact that portions of his scalp were clearly visible during the televised debates with his verbally challenged yet undeniably Bushy opponent. The Democrats took note and next time around chose a candidate with hair as sizeable as his intellect: the magnificently maned John Kerry. His defeat in 2004 seemed inconceivable. But in retrospect, it is all quite easily explained-Boy Bush may have "won" two presidential terms, but the jury is still out as to whether he was ever truly elected.

Having worked in television, the Importance of Good Hair doesn't come as a revelation to me: it's well known within the world of TV production that the on-air talent's hair and make-up takes precedence over factors like script and direction. And it's no accident that the presidential requirement of a full head of hair began with JFK-he was elected by a nation newly gripped with television fever. Prior to his election, the American people had enjoyed eight years under Dwight Eisenhower, an unabashed baldy.  Much has been written about the Nixon-Kennedy televised debate marking a turning point. From that time forward, television appearances have played an acknowledged crucial role in presidential election campaigns. Yes, if Joe Volpe were running for President of the United States of America, he'd be unstoppable.

But this is Canada, a country where hair doesn't seem to play such an important role in leadership. The Prime Minister with the most hair was Kim Campbell and she lasted about as long as the average haircut.  As Pierre Elliot Trudeau gradually and gracefully thinned over the years, he only seemed more distinguished, and it didn't stop him being reelected in 1980. And while Jean Chrétien made many mistakes, he never wasted time or energy trying to disguise the fact that his locks were lessening. I certainly don't mean to imply that Americans are superficial, but I do think it's gratifying that, as Canadians, we can be proud that what lies beneath the scalp seems to be valued over the hair itself.

Still, while we have our own way of doing things in Canada, we inevitably share some common ground with our neighbours to the south. The best-known liberal candidate, Michael Ignatieff (whose hair, at fifty-eight, is still positively fulsome) lived and worked in the States for many years. Now, with left-wingers both sides of the border still celebrating this month's US mid-term Democratic double victory, there may be good reason for Liberal optimism. A recent nationwide poll suggests Canadians are so disenchanted with Harper and his minority Tory government that were an election held now, the Liberals would win, despite not yet having a proper leader.

But complacency is never wise, and both the US Democrats and the Canadian Liberals seem to be aware, at least on some level, of the Follicle Factor. Regardless of whom the Republicans field in 2008, Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton's blonde coif would surely be hard to beat, especially since it's lately been showing signs that it will soon rise again to bouffant stature.

Whoever does win the Liberal Leadership on December 3rd must be prepared to reunite the party and restore its integrity, as well as the faith of the Canadian electorate, in time to defeat Harper, our American-style PM whose Ken doll hair has greyed considerably since he took office, but remains as bulbous as ever.

So is it just a quirk of destiny that not only the four frontrunners, but seven out of the eight Liberal leadership candidates have more than enough bulk on top to give Harper's helmet head some stiff competition in the next federal election? I'd venture it's about as much of a coincidence as the fateful fact that Montreal, the city hosting the upcoming Liberal Leadership convention, also happens to be the birthplace of Galt MacDermot, composer of the hit 1960s musical Hair.

I rest my shaggy case