This week brought a whirlwind of changes for the face of one Sen. Mitt Romney. The Utah Republican debuted a hint of a beard when he returned to Washington from Thanksgiving, then quickly shaved it before the country had a real chance to process the look.
Before Romney flip-flopped, his beard—and I’m using that term loosely—showed a few early indications of promise. The whiskers were evenly spaced and shaded with no visible bald patches, nor any of those inelegant streaks on the chin that can make some beards look as if they’re harboring dribbles of food. Had he given the beard another week to mature, Romney might have had something full and lustrous on his hands (or, rather, his cheeks).
Instead, Romney left us with only an image of a bristly chin bone by which to remember his brief moment of flair, dooming the public to wonder forever whether it was a trial run cut short or merely a few-day run of laziness. The beard “was itchy,” he reportedly explained after his shave.
It’s the type of capricious, shortsighted facial hair behavior one might expect from a teenager who just developed the capacity to grow a full mustache, or a recent divorcé ready for some light experimentation—not a 75-year-old senator who tells reporters of his snowy stubble, “My wife says it’s cute.” What gives?
Well, Romney has found himself in a weird spot, politically speaking, for quite some time. Within the span of a decade, he went from GOP presidential nominee to Republican Party outcast as he watched his party fall in love with Donald Trump, feed the momentum of domestic white nationalist movements, and advocate the overturning of an election. All the while, he has struggled to find his footing on the moral high ground: In 2016 he was captured in a grimace of pained, groveling humiliation at a dinner with Trump—who looked like an actual demon negotiating for Romney’s soul—but later voted twice to convict the guy after his impeachment trials. He has clearly spent a good deal of time over the past few years considering who he is and who exactly he wants to be.
This week, he wanted to be a beard guy. A guy with the brooding appeal of Beto O’Rourke, the Union-saving moral certainty of Abraham Lincoln, and the entrepreneurial spirit of an old-timey Western prospector, albeit with slightly better-kempt hair. A guy with a jawbone conjured (and contoured) out of nowhere, à la Ted Cruz. A “bad boy”—eek, sorry; I’m trying to delete it—with a heart of gold.
Trying to establish one’s place in a rapidly degenerating political party that has abandoned all basic, widely shared American values, and attempting to preserve one’s legacy while remaining relatively within the bounds of that party, all while making time for two dozen grandchildren—it has all seemed rather exhausting for Romney. It makes sense that he would want to take a few days off from the daily shave and cut loose with a few excess millimeters of facial hair.
And it’s no surprise that this anomalous whiff of aesthetic unpredictability came during a week when Romney once again stood against most of his fellow Republicans, with a vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and require that same-sex marriages performed in any state be recognized in every other. The legislation, Romney said in a statement, “signals that Congress—and I—esteem and love all of our fellow Americans equally.”
Love?! He loves all Americans?! That’s classic hippie beard talk, if you ask me. Perhaps the senator and his team are taking out a new, looser, free-loving Romney for a spin, just to see what it feels like. His staff is taking pains to amplify the miniature news cycle his beard has inspired: His deputy chief of staff tweeted that Romney’s baby beard was part of #NoShaveNovember (even though, ahem, Romney was shaving for most of the month). His digital director retweeted that #NoShaveNovember video clip. His state director retweeted the “My wife says it’s cute” comment. Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun, which cannot always be the norm in the Senate office of Willard “Mitt” Romney.
They are also doing what appears to be some light damage control. Romney’s chief of staff, Liz Johnson, has been retweeting reporters’ commentary about the beard and, in one quote tweet, added a Santa Claus emoji. This could be read as a light ribbing of her boss, as his beard was coming in entirely white before he shaved it off. (Maybe that’s why he balked?) But I prefer to see it as an effort to muffle the eroticism implied in Romney’s remark about his wife’s thinking his facial hair was “cute.” Much better for the Utah senator to be seen as jolly and generous than as anything approaching an object of thirst.