LBJ’s Wild Ex-President Hair (And the Story Behind It)

Toward the end of his life, the 36th president of the United States grew his hair long—much like the youths who protested his strategy in Vietnam. But why?

Corbis via Getty

Long before Donald Trump’s wisps of cotton candy brushed the door frames of the Oval Office, many American presidents had memorable hairstyles: George Washington’s powdered tresses, Andrew Jackson’s unruly mane, Abraham Lincoln’s stolid chinstrap.

Yet the follicular legacies of some retired presidents remain woefully underappreciated. This week though, thanks to a photo that made the rounds online, I got to experience the joy that is 1972 Lyndon B. Johnson hair:

A long-haired LBJ—at that time in America’s political and cosmetological history—is a remarkable thing for a few reasons. Hair has always been political, whether long or short, but the late 1960s and early 1970s were truly a time when one’s do defined their place in a deeply divided culture.

I had to know what had compelled Johnson to start rocking those locks. And, as it so happens, a search revealed the explanation in a story from the July 1973 issue of this very magazine:

So Johnson suffered the election in silence, swallowing his nitroglycerin tablets to thwart continual chest pains, endorsing McGovern through a hill country weekly newspaper, meeting cordially with the candidate at the ranch. The newspapers showed a startling picture of Johnson, his hair almost shoulder-length. Former aide Bob Hardesty takes credit for this development. “We were working together one day,” Hardesty recalls, “and he said, in passing, ‘Robert, you need a haircut.’ I told him, ‘Mr. President, I’m letting my hair grow so no one will be able to mistake me for those SOB’s in the White House.’ He looked startled, so I explained, ‘You know, that bunch around Nixon—Haldeman, Ehrlichman—they all have very short hair.’ He nodded. The next time I saw him his hair was growing over his collar.”

Beyond the charm of this quiet personal protest, what struck me most upon reading this was the role LBJ himself had played in the politics of that choice. The Vietnam War, the defining issue of the time, similarly defined hairstyles in America—particularly among young men. Military requirements sorted the buzz cuts from the bohemians. So it’s striking that Johnson, the president who’d escalated the war, would style himself in the fashion of Hair’s draft dodgers.

The image also left me wondering about Johnson’s thoughts in those final months before he died of a heart attack in January 1973. For a true examination, we have the work of Michael Beschloss, who, beyond tweeting the photo of LBJ that I saw this week, has written two books on Johnson’s White House tapes (and unlike me hasn’t only listened to the best tape). I also recommend the aforementioned piece from The Atlantic, which published the same month that taping system became known to Watergate investigators.

Perhaps that investigation and the atmosphere of the country at the time offer some insight into LBJ’s Lebowskian locks. Few ex-presidents have broken the mold as notably as Johnson, but even fewer experienced what he did in retirement.

From his Texas ranch in the middle of a bitterly divided country, Johnson could only watch as a man who may have conspired with a foreign power to win the election presided over his legacy, and worked to undermine the investigation into his campaign. Not many of us could know what that was like, so I’d say the man deserved to let his hair out a bit.

Your move, Barack Obama.