Unbeknownst to most of the pundits watching tonight’s debate, there’s a key third player alongside Tim Kaine and Mike Pence at the table—Kaine’s eyebrow. Virginians are well-aware that the thing has a mind of its own, and as Pence works to mitigate the negatives of his own counterpart, it’s worth examining the ways Kaine’s own wily brow has weighed him down in the past.
Watching Kaine and his eyebrow climb up the ladder of Virginia politics over the past decade has been truly moving for me and my own unruly brow. I should disclose at this point that I am not only a Virginian but also a former intern for Prince William County’s Democratic Party office, a position which had me making calls and getting doors slammed in my face for Tim Kaine in 2012. I can’t say that my joining up with that year’s campaign was inspired directly by sympathy for the situation on Kaine’s forehead, but I have watched Kaine’s brow shoot up into the political stratosphere with something like pride.
Kaine’s eyebrow became a matter of widespread attention in Virginia’s 2005 gubernatorial election, during which the Washington Post compared Kaine, predictably, to Mr. Spock. After Kaine’s third debate with Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, one local pundit writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch seemed to suggest that keeping the brow down would be key to seeming relatable and authentic to voters. “Hammered on the death penalty,” he wrote, “Kaine responded the only way he could: candidate to camera—in effect, looking you in the eye, even managing to control a runaway left eyebrow.” Kaine’s eyebrow would be subject to additional commentary in this very magazine the following year after his selection as the Democrats’ post–State of the Union speaker in 2006. “Considering what the country now thinks about the state of the union under Bush, an arched eyebrow might be the perfect Democratic response,” Slate’s Bruce Reed opined.
He could not have been more wrong. “At the risk of being rude, the response by Tim Kaine might have been more effective if someone had taken a staple-gun to his left eyebrow,” wrote one frustrated blogger. “I thought that thing was going to jump off his head and attack me.” Jon Stewart’s riff afterward suggested that Kaine’s brow was perhaps the only sign of life the governor exhibited during the entire response. His delivery was stiff and he repeated the canned line “a better way” endlessly, punctuated on and off with a brow twitch so unnerving that a columnist for the Virginian-Pilot suggested that Kaine try Botox. Brendan Nyhan, now a government professor at Dartmouth College, speculated then that Kaine’s brow contortions could actually handicap his political career. “That eyebrow is too distracting for the party to ever put him on national television again,” he wrote “Call me shallow if you want, but it’s true. … Yikes.”
Kaine’s eyebrow would indeed come up for discussion again in 2008 when he was vetted as a potential vice presidential candidate for Barack Obama. Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks devoted an entire segment of his show to the subject, comparing Kaine to The Rock and mugging incredulously at the evidently serious consideration pundits were giving to Kaine’s facial discipline, or lack thereof. Kaine, for his part, would do his best to put the issue to bed with an appearance on The Daily Show that marked one of the first appearances of a raised eyebrow logo that has effectively become Kaine’s trademark in the state.
Kaine obviously wasn’t chosen for the VP slot in 2008, and one can only speculate as to the role his wild brow might have played in the decision to turn him down. Clinton obviously took a significant risk bringing him on. Kaine’s eyebrow, after all, is everything Kaine is not: controversial, unpredictable, black. Will its contortions prove too much for middle America alongside Pence’s impeccably furrowed brow and white mane? We’re about to find out.