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Thursday, March 10, 2016 05:21 pm

Eggheads, again

This week I take up the governor’s choices in clothes, but I can find no fault with his grooming. I haven’t always been able to say that about Illinois’s senior politicians. In a 1990 column titled Eggheads, I examined – not a bit more closely than I had to – the topic of the comb-over affected by the Democratic Attorney General Neil Hartigan, who was then running for governor. Hair makes the man, I argued; Mr. Hartigan’s comb-over said he had a low opinion of the public’s intelligence, since this is one politician's trick even a TV camera can see through. And, I asked, if you had something to hide, would you try to hide it on top of your head, where everyone can see it?”

It was funny. Well, I thought it was funny. But you should decide for yourselves. Here ‘tis, from Oct. 18, 1990.

Here it is, less than a month until Election Day, and still I wait for my colleagues in the press to ask the tough questions that need to be asked about Neil Hartigan's hair. We know where it stands, or rather where it lies. What I want to know is, where is it going? Where will it be four years from now, if we elect its owner our new governor?

I have studied the matter from several angles from news photos, and while I hesitate to accuse a candidate of a cover-up using second-hand information, it seems clear to me that it's been a long time since the attorney general has asked the statehouse barber to take a little off the top. When people who've worked with him told me that he doesn't have a lot upstairs, I assumed they meant brains. That part on the left side of his head begins too suspiciously low on the left side of his head not to conclude that our balding A-G is combing over.

Nostalgists may complain that what is inside a man's head matters more than what's on it, that judging a candidate by the way he looks is shallow. I agree that hair is not important itself. (I intend to write in the name of Sinead O'Connor for comptroller, for example.) Hair-dos, however, are important. We all know that events will set the agenda for the next governor, whoever he is. Ideology is meaningless in a race that amounts to a referendum on campaign tactics. Character, not content, is what to look for in a politician. And nothing—except maybe choice of shoes and whether he watches football—reveals a man's character more perfectly than the way he wears his hair.

And what Neil Madigan's—sorry, Neil Hartigan's—hair-do says about the Democrat is unsettling. It says he is vain, and vain men can be seduced by flattery. It says that he has a low opinion of the public’s intelligence; this is one politician's trick even a TV camera can see through. It says he has trouble facing unpleasant facts, and that he cannot be trusted with numbers; any man who thinks that you can substitute a few long hairs for thousands of short ones will wreak havoc come budget time. Finally, it says he ain't too smart; if you had something to hide, would you try to hide it on top of your head, where everyone can see it?

Most troubling of all, do we want a man in the executive mansion who looks to Lou Henson as a model? The Illini basketball coach has the most famous comb-over in all of professional sport, the "Lou-do," which is to hair styling what plastic roses are to flower gardening. Last year Spy magazine—the monthly that is to the 1990s what Time was to the 1960s—surveyed famous comb-over wearers as part of its illustrated history of hair. As a loyal Illinoisan, I was dismayed that Spy's list of twenty-eight did not include Henson. Apart from this omission—predictable in a magazine whose staff thinks of the Midwest as that part of town where the New Yorker offices are located—the piece was useful enough. It derided the comb-over as ineffective and self-deluding, and noted that, more than tax audits or hidden cameras, the public man with a comb-over fears the wind. Watch coach Henson the next time he is interviewed on an airplane runway. When he sticks his index finger into the air, he is not signaling his opinion that his team is "No. 1." He is testing the air. Hartigan, too, must be wary of a crosswind bearing from his right, lest his do begin flapping like a garbage can lid on a hinge.

Look, I'm sympathetic. I've been there. Twenty years ago I had perhaps the most ridiculous hair in Springfield. Other long-hairs back then got bullied by street cops or the FBI; I was hassled by animal control officers. I know the pain of having bad hair. Perhaps the man would like to come out of the styling booth, so to speak. But this year Mike Hartigan—sorry, Neil—had the misfortune to run against a man with the best hair seen at this level since Mike Bakalis and Dan Walker. When Jim Edgar announced his decision to run for governor, he didn't toss his hat into the ring, he tossed his blow dryer.

The Republicans as a party seem to care about hair more than the Democrats. The first time I saw minority leader Lee Daniels up close, I was reminded of how Marlin Perkins had explained that a rhinoceros' horn is not horn at all but matted hair. As for Edgar, his hair is perfect. It is prematurely gray, which gives an air of dignity to a man who otherwise still looks like a Boy Scout troop leader. It is cut in a modified Baptist bouffant, the kind of cut that Jimmy Swaggart might wear if he stayed home nights. If s hair that knows its place—only liberals need mousse—and it's just unstylish enough to appeal to Illinois voters, especially in the suburbs where people regard Land's End as a designer clothing label.

I combed the standard histories of Illinois and found that the political aspects of hair have been given the brush-off. Hair has always mattered to the voters if not the scholars. Lincoln, remember, grew a beard for the 1860 presidential campaign, to make him look, well, different. Hartigan may be all too aware that Illinois voters have elected only two bald men governor in recent times, neither of whom lasted more than one term.

Henry Horner was rejected, I suspect, less because he was bald than because it became known that he read books. Baldness is a trait long associated with intellectuals, apparently on the theory that thinking generates heat that kills the roots. (The same thing happened to your philodendron if you put it atop an old tube-type TV set, remember?) Adlai Stevenson was sneered at as an egghead when he ran for president. When his son ran for governor he brought no more hair to the task than did his father; no one called him an egghead, although I heard the word "eggplant" used a couple of times.

Wisconsin a few years ago faced the prospect of a bald U.S. senator, until William Proxmire got transplants. His courage is an example Illinois politicians would do well to imitate. There would be some political risk—I can see the Edgar commercials now: "What else does he have to hide?"—but such an attack would give Hartigan an opening chance to bring up the issue of adenoids. At least the candidates would be back to talking about what they know. 


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