American Beat: Bald-Faced Prejudice

The American civil rights movement took a huge step backwards last week as yet another minority candidate was trounced in an election that should have highlighted America's supposed tolerance towards people of different ethnic, racial and class groups.

In this case, of course, I'm talking about bald men.

The victim this time was former Massachusetts state senator Warren Tolman, a proud bald man, who lost the Democratic primary for governor last week. The loss was particularly bitter for the bald because Tolman had intentionally used his lack of hair to get on the radar screen in the race, running ads that showed him rubbing his shiny pate while standing in a barbershop surrounded by equally hairless men.

Before these eye-catching ads, Tolman was polling at less than 1 percent in the four-candidate race. But once his self-deprecatory shtik hit the airwaves, his obvious abhorrence of cover-ups sent him soaring to nearly 20 percent. One ad even had his wife saying, "I think he's hot." (I did like that ad, but you know the American political system is in trouble when a candidate feels the need to have his wife take to the airwaves to confess that she's still attracted to her husband.)

"The 'Bald is Beautiful' thing put him on the map," said Seth Gitell, political writer for the Boston Phoenix, who spent several days watching voters wig out for Tolman on the campaign trail. "People would come over to him and rub his head for good luck. Everyone knew him. I was with him at a Greek festival and even the women running the loukamades stand--who couldn't even speak English--knew him. I thought, 'Man, this guy has really broken through.'"

In the end, though, Tolman lost to the inept state comptroller Shannon O'Brien and second-place finisher Robert Reich (which is amazing, considering how freakin' short Reich is).

So what happened? Isn't it obvious? Tolman became the casualty of a hairy backlash. In other, equally corny, words, voters swept Tolman under the rug. You might even say that voters didn't take a shine to him. Or, if you really wanted to use a bad pun, Tolman's campaign suffered a hair-line fracture.

According to statistics, there are more than 1,300,000 bald or balding white men in Massachusetts (who know the Census Bureau kept such numbers?). So if bald men had just engaged in the cheapest, most gratuitous form of identity politics, Tolman would've cruised to victory.

But bald men don't always do what's in their best interest (witness the combover). In fact, of the 44 male governors in the country, only 12 are bald or balding--almost 50 percent fewer than there statistically should be given the advanced age of those state executives.

How can a bald man in the 38 states with hair-covered leaders be certain that his interests are truly being represented?

[Note to editor: Listen, I know I harp on bald injustice more than you'd like, but, let's face it, baldness is the only thing I actually know something about. I mean, I even wrote a book about it last year called "HAIR! Mankind's Historic Quest to End Baldness." Not that I write columns like this simply to plug my book--like I just did. I write to end prejudice! Of course, who am I to stop someone from clicking here--and buying my book? It's a free country, right?]

Tolman's experience should send a chill down the scalp of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who made headlines--as well as headway--last week by finally abandoning his signature 1950s-era combover.

Rudy's was a particularly bad combover. (I'm not talking George Pataki bad. I'm talking Sam Breakstone bad.) As bad as most combovers are, they're not the subject of such widespread ridicule as Rudy's. Rudy's hairstyle was so bad, it was not merely a part of the New York zeitgeist, but became a measuring stick against which men--not just bald men, but all New York men--could assess their own physical attractiveness.

You know, as in, "Well, at least I don't look as bad as Rudy!" Rudy's combover was such a frequent target of David Letterman Top-10 list that it almost became an issue in Giuliani's short-lived Senate race against Hillary Clinton. The man was relentless:

"Things Kenneth Starr has found out about Al Gore: Number 9: Stole valuable combover secrets from Rudy Giuliani," 1999; "Signs that Mayor Giuliani has gone nuts: Number 10: Appointed his hairpiece deputy mayor," 1995; "Signs that Mayor Giuliani is in love with you: Number 3: When he visits you, combover is in the shape of a heart," 2000; "Chapter Titles in Rudy Giuliani's Memoirs: Number 6: "Derek Jeter -- Great Player, but What About That Ridiculous Full Head of Non-Combed-Over Hair?" 2001; "Highlights of Clinton's Visit to New York: Number 10: "Declared Giuliani's combover a federal disaster area,"1997; "Ways to Beat the Heat in New York City: Number 7: "Change to your lighter, summer-only combover (Mayor Giuliani only),"1997; "Reasons New York's Population is Shrinking: Number 6: "Many citizens frightened by Mayor Giuliani's hair," 1994; "Signs of Spring in New York: Number 3: "Rudy Giuliani has a spring tune-up done to his combover,"1996; "Ways New York City is cutting back: Number 2: "Letterman and Giuliani must share same hairpiece," 1995; "Ways New Yorkers are celebrating the Yankees' World Series win: Number 4: "Mayor Giuliani shaving 'Yankees Rule!' into his combover," 1996.

So considering how the combover was nationally ridiculed, you can see why Rudy's decision to get rid of it was national news.

The Washington Post gushed that Rudy "simply but dramatically has shaken off the image of a door-to-door salesman" and now has "an enhanced, self-confident aura, a Robert Duvall-meets-Ed Harris elegance. Giuliani is knocking at the door of handsome."

Rudy may be knocking, but handsome ain't home. And Ed Harris? He's been dodging Rudy's calls ever since "Apollo 13." Still, according to Giuliani spokeswoman Sunny Mindel, Hizzoner is pleased with his new 'do. And, more important, his girlfriend Judi Nathan "liked the way it looked."

Given that Giuliani has frequently spoken about wanting to serve in public office again, can there be any doubt that the re-invention of Rudy's head is a precursor to the return of Rudy's political ambition?

But of course. "This is a defining moment," I was quoted in Newsday columnist Ellis Henican's piece the other day. "It's a statement of purpose. Taking back your baldness--whether it's shaving your head or giving up the combover--has always indicated that a major change is on the way. [For Rudy], it's like Gloria Gaynor singing, 'I Will Survive.'"

Wait a second, how did I find myself quoted in Newsday? Just selling books, I guess.