When deciding on a presidential candidate to support, Americans typically take into account a range of critical considerations, including the candidate's personal charisma, whether he or she "looks presidential," if the candidate seems like someone you'd like to share a beer with and, perhaps most important, height. Why, some voters will even compare candidates' different positions on the issues of the day. Those wacky voters!
We in the media take a different approach, ignoring such petty considerations as "the issues" in favor of poring over the results of daily presidential polls. By frequently asking the public which candidate they plan to vote for, we can gauge, often within a few percentage points, the precise number of voters who are sick of being asked which candidate they plan to vote for.
The media often gets criticized for an excessive interest in polling data, but rest assured that there's a very good reason we do it: because it's easy. A journalism degree doesn't exactly qualify someone to examine the details of every candidate's economic plan, after all. Instead we prefer to focus on the so-called "horse race," by which I mean we write something quickly about the most recent poll and then get together with our fellow journalists at the track.
Lately, however, the media and public alike have witnessed a new factor that's quickly gaining influence over candidates' political fortunes. I speak, of course, of what pundits are referring to as the "hair primary." In the 21st century, it appears, candidates hoping to lock up a party nomination must first prove they've gotten a handle on their own locks.
On the Democratic side, the first candidate whose hair got him into a tangle was John Edwards, who apparently fell prey to an old journalism trick. As you're no doubt aware, candidates are notoriously guarded about the way they answer questions, and often phrase their responses to fit whatever campaign theme they're promoting. This is why Rudy Giuliani answers every question he's asked, ranging from his suit size to what time it is, by saying, "It's 9:11."
To combat this tendency toward obfuscation, journalists will often try to catch a candidate in an unguarded moment by asking one of those inane, conversational space filler questions that people with nothing else to say like to ask. Questions like "Hot enough for you?" "Working hard or hardly working?" and "How about those [name of local sports franchise]?"
So when a reporter offhandedly asked Edwards one such question - specifically, "Did you just get a haircut?" - the former senator neglected to do the smart thing and respond by explaining why, say, the nation needs to focus less on haircuts and more on repealing President Bush's tax cuts. Instead, Edwards found himself the object of ridicule when he let his guard down and answered, "Why yes I did. Thanks so much for noticing. It cost me $400, you know. What do you think? Nice, huh?" he added, then compounded the problem by taking out a hand mirror to admire the job.
On the Republican side, many coiffure watchers have all but conceded the hair primary to Mitt Romney, the only candidate among the GOP front runners who even appears to be competing. Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson have all dodged the hair issue by taking the extreme step of not having any. Yet somehow they all believe they can become the first bald president elected since Eisenhower.
It's clear that the American electorate prefers a president with a full head of hair, most likely because overcoming baldness represents one of our greatest national achievements. Say what you will about the free market, no one can argue with the technological advances we've made to hide our shamefully bald pates. Toupees, weaves, hair plugs, spray-on hair, snap-on hair, hair restoring pills - in every area American ingenuity has led the way. Why, just a few years ago Giuliani himself was up to his ears in ground-breaking research into the comb-over.
By contrast, what did communism ever achieve in this arena? When faced with a balding premier in Mikhail Gorbachev, the best solution the Soviets could come up with was to spatter a little purple paint on his forehead. Is it any wonder that we won the Cold War?
This is not to say that positive bald role models are entirely absent from American culture. Mr. Clean, for example, is a much-beloved advertising icon who, under normal circumstances, any candidate might rush to embrace. However, the current political environment makes it difficult for any candidate- particularly a Republican - to associating himself with a muscular man clad in a tight-fitting T-shirt who wears a single earring and seems unusually preoccupied with bathroom hygiene.
There's no doubt that Americans are ready for bold leadership in 2008. What remains to be determined, however, is whether we're ready for bald leadership.