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Free as a Beard

HOH can’t help but notice a preponderance of beards these days, even around usually clean-shaven Washington. The latest guy to boycott the shave: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D).

[IMGCAP(1)]An HOH tipster spotted the guv last week picking up a lunch of french fries and Caesar salad in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Richardson, who dropped out of the increasingly hot race for the Democratic presidential nomination last month, is sporting a full-on beard that looks trim and tidy, our spy says, bringing to mind the beard that former Vice President Al Gore grew after losing the 2000 election.

Richardson tells HOH he’s growing the beard to celebrate his newfound freedom. He’s grown a beard before, during periods of “transition and decompression” in his life, he says, including when he left the United Nations to become secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration.

And so he’s marking his shift from presidential candidate back into normal life with a respite from the rigors of shaving.

“When you leave a race for president, there’s a liberating feeling, and you feel liberated from all the consultants and advisers,” Richardson says. “It was an appropriate time to grow a beard.”

Mike Gilman, a co-founder of the Men’s Grooming Lounge, the downtown all-guy beauty parlor, says the governor is experiencing a common motivation for growing facial hair. “A beard is one thing a guy can do to assert his independence,” Gilman says.

Richardson says he’s keeping the beard for a while.

Other reasons for the Hill’s recent beard boom: Some staffers downgraded their grooming regimens over the business-casual holiday recess, and some stopped shaving to gain a little extra warmth for campaigning in chilly states.

“If you can get beyond the ‘itchy’ stage, you’re well on your way to growing a nice set of whiskers,” advises Israel Klein, spokesman for the Joint Economic Committee majority staff, who is showing off a new chin full of locks. “While my beard started off as the usual recess scruff, I have kept it in solidarity with my New York Giants in their quest to be Super Bowl champions once again.”

And one Republican who grew a beard while on the campaign trail but shaved once he returned to the Hill says his recent experiment was more a matter of function than statement. “With the long hours, it was easier not to shave, and a beard keeps you marginally warmer in places like Iowa and New Hampshire,” he says.

Kings of Comedy. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) better brush up on their stand-up comedy skills. HOH hears the two will be the headliners for the annual Washington Press Club Foundation dinner, slated for Feb. 13.

The dinner is a yearly tradition in which lawmakers break bread with the reporters who cover them and poke fun at themselves and the Fourth Estate in mini-monologues. Greatest hits from past dinners include always-dapper House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) calling out reporters for their poor fashion sense in 2007, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in 2006 riffing on former colleague Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) Viagra habits.

Former White House spokesman Tony Snow is emceeing this year’s fete.

Both Emanuel and Cornyn are WPCF virgins, so they might want to turn to some of their colleagues who are veterans for some tips on how to elicit laughs from the usually cynical Congressional press corps.

Emanuel spokesman Sarah Feinberg says the Congressman’s camp is staying mum on his performance for the night, offering only this tantalizing tidbit: “Rep. Emanuel will be performing all his own stunts.”

And, hey, no pressure — in addition to hundreds of journalists, the audience will include luminaries such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will be sitting on the dais.

HOH also hears that Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the Washington press corps, will be a star of the evening. A film crew will be shooting Thomas for a documentary that filmmaker Rory Kennedy (yes, of those Kennedys) is making for HBO about Thomas’ life.

Ralph at the Ready. Erstwhile presidential aspirant Ralph Nader has his finger to the wind, testing whether he’ll jump into the 2008 race as a third-party candidate. But at 73, with four failed runs behind him, he would be the oldest of the pack — even senior to 71-year-old potential GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Nader seemed to bristle a bit when HOH caught up with him to ask whether he’s up for another tilt at the old windmills. “That’s not a question,” said Nader, who was hopping into a waiting car parked on North Capitol Street. “I am ready. The question is whether I can put together a viable campaign.”

Nader’s forming an exploratory committee to determine just that, he tells HOH.

Hayden Who? Actress Hayden Panettiere, who stars as an adorable cheerleader with superpowers on NBC series “Heroes,” might be kind of a big deal in Hollywood. In fact, the diminutive blonde is fast becoming a favorite target of the gossip-rag paparazzi.

But in Washington, the wonky scribes apparently aren’t as up on their US Weekly as their Congressional Record — or perhaps they weren’t interested in talking about anything other than economic stimulus plans. An HOH spy spotted the actress and save-the-whales activist wandering through the Senate daily press gallery during her Jan. 29 blitz of the Capitol, looking as if she was expecting to be recognized and interviewed.

But the busy journos were too busy digesting the real news of the day to take an interest in the starlet.

Finally, the potentially awkward moment ended when a few young Congressional pages approached her for an autograph in the hallway outside the gallery.

Finally, someone who thinks she’s a hero.

Briefly Quoted. “We are a great nation. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

— Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing last Thursday on whether Iraq or Afghanistan is a bigger priority for the U.S.

Holly Setter of Gallery Watch contributed to this report.

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