03/25/2012 10:27 EDT | Updated 05/25/2012 05:12 EDT

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair: Beard A Rare Choice For Canadian Leaders

The Huffington Post Canada

TORONTO - Mission Mulcair: to beardly go where few politicians have gone before.

All but unremarked upon in the NDP's agonizingly slow — and consequently much-analyzed — choice Saturday of Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair to lead Her Majesty's loyal Opposition has been his facial hair.

As a putative prime minister-in-waiting, Mulcair steps into the public spotlight leading with his chin. His rich, dark pelt of a neatly trimmed beard is as much a part of his persona as his famously mercurial temperament.

And in an age of whiskerless political leaders, it's also something of an image gamble.

Not since Mackenzie Bowell in 1894 have Canadians had a bearded prime minister, and Bowell managed the feat without actually running for the office. The Conservative senator got the nod when then-prime minister John Thompson suddenly died.

Bowell may not be an inspirational figure for Mulcair. Apart from his dramatic, spade-like facial hair, Bowell's two-year reign was notable for him being the only prime minister to be forced to resign by members of his own cabinet, which he labelled "a nest of traitors."

Charles Tupper's massive mutton chops almost qualify him as a bearded leader, but his brief 10-week tenure as prime minister in 1896 just wasn't enough for him to try the full grizzly.

Robert Borden's regal moustache during almost a decade in office from 1911 to 1920 marks the last time a prime minister rose to power while sporting whiskers.

William Taft was the last U.S. president with facial hair, and his single, moustachioed term ended in 1913.

Pierre Trudeau briefly grew a beard following an Arctic trek during his few months in opposition in 1979, but the lesson he took from that experience won't comfort Mulcair.

Trudeau once told an interviewer that philosopher Marshall McLuhan — who famously coined the maxim, "the medium is the message" — had written to him about the beard, providing what Trudeau felt was counter-intuitive advice.

"He said, 'You've cooled your image several degrees' — which is what I wanted, I suppose, subconsciously because I was in opposition and I was trying to keep a low profile," Trudeau told the CBC in November 1980.

"I would have thought a beard attracted more interest but (McLuhan) had reached the contrary conclusion. And I think he probably was right because he went on to say: 'And you can keep that in mind if ever you want to hot up your image again.'"

It worked, Trudeau recounted.

"In effect, when I cut my beard off people say, 'Oh my gosh, Trudeau's back in politics.' I was no longer retiring, just because I'd cut my beard off."

A clean-shaven Trudeau was swept back into office in February 1980.

But perhaps New Democrats are doing their own subconscious image channelling.

Their beloved late leader Jack Layton's thin moustache was something of a trademark, and he stubbornly refused to bow to whispers that it had to go.

"Don't let them tell you it can't be done," Layton was repeatedly quoted during the course of the leadership convention.

The bearded Mulcair, it seems, is going to give it a shot.

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