Layton should never shave it off
By John Sainsbury,
The Ottawa Citizen May 1, 2011 8:15 AM
Be the first to post a comment As Jack Layton surges in the polls, his moustache is bound to come under close scrutiny from Canadians, along with his policies. He is, after all, bidding to become the first prime minister to wear one since Louis St. Laurent back in the 1950s.
Why does he wear it? The simplest answer might be: because he can. His rivals patently can’t. Put a moustache on Michael Ignatieff to complement the scraggly eyebrows, and he’d have the appearance of a demented Old Testament prophet. That “rise up” mantra would sound a lot crazier than it already does.
A moustache on Stephen Harper would certainly complicate his bland image in some intriguing ways, but it would also draw a line under the Pinocchio nose (is it just my imagination, or is it actually getting longer?) and by so doing accentuate it.
And a moustache on Gilles Duceppe would make the hairnet in the cheese-factory incident seem like a distant memory.
(Politeness dictates that I refrain from comment about Elizabeth May.)
So that leaves the field clear for Jack.
Make no mistake about it, the moustache has been a powerful signifier in the world of male dominated politics. One of my favourite photographs is of the leaders of the victorious allies in the First World War chatting on a terrace at Versailles during negotiation of the peace treaty that officially ended the war.
President Woodrow Wilson of the United States has a distinct height advantage over his colleagues David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy and Georges (“le Tigre”) Clemenceau of France. But Wilson loses out in the moustache department. Shockingly, he has no facial hair at all.
The winner in that regard was Clemenceau, who was acknowledged to have one of the finest moustaches in France’s Third Republic, one of those droopy numbers that makes you wonder how he was ever able to get food in his mouth.
Lloyd George’s was pretty good, too, and supported his reputation as “the Welsh wizard.” Orlando’s, it has to be said, was smudgy. In fact, one has to look twice at the picture to confirm that he has a moustache at all.
Here’s my point. Moustache quality was a direct indicator of who would triumph in testy negotiations. Clemenceau was the clear winner, getting Alsace-Lorraine, lots of colonies, and the humiliation of Germany. Lloyd George did quite well, too. But poor Orlando walked away with what Italians grumbled was a “mutilated victory.” And the hairless Wilson left Versailles a broken man, his idealistic agenda shattered by the stubborn resistance of his hirsute colleagues.
Now I concede that much has changed between the era of Clemenceau and the era of Jack Layton. Quality of moustache is no longer a straightforward marker of political virility. After all, Winston Churchill, who was bald as an egg, prevailed over the moustachioed Neville Chamberlain, which prepped him for his Titanic showdown with Adolf Hitler, who sported what became known as “the Hitler moustache.”
In the 21st century, moustaches on Canadian politicians have become a rarity. But that’s why Layton’s moustache is a possible asset, its apparent novelty signifying the fresh face of Canadian politics.
Of course, the quality and style of moustache is still important. At one time, I must confess, I found Layton’s baffling in terms of what it communicated. It looked like the moustaches on RAF officers that I remember from my postwar childhood in England. And somehow RAF culture and quasi-socialist politics seem like an uncomfortable combination.
Yet to the extent that the moustache, along with walking cane, give Jack a jaunty military bearing, that’s all to the good. He looks like the battler he is, soldiering on, not only against ruthless opponents, but also against the cruel onset of disease.
His moustache, it should be noted, is dashing, but well under control -just the image that Jack needs to project for himself and his party.
Jack, in 2007, threatened to shave off his moustache to raise money for a charity event. In the end he didn’t. Had he done so, the future course of Canadian political history might have been changed irretrievably.
John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.
© Printed with permission from Professor John Sainsbury.