Thought experiment: Would you feel any sympathy at all for a hypothetical superrich ex–frat boy, ex–Goldman Sachs exec with a penchant for taking enormous risks, the most recent of which just torpedoed an entire company? No? Because that’s who Jon Corzine is, and that’s what he just did. And yet in coming days we will see less public anger directed at Corzine than descended mightily upon Lehman Brothers’ Dick Fuld, AIG’s Joseph Cassano, and the rest of our era’s rapaciously overleveraged financiers. Instead, Corzine is viewed more like an old person who hit the wrong pedal and drove through a garage door. And it is because of his beard.
Let’s review all the breaks Jon Corzine’s beard has gotten. First it lost a power struggle at Goldman but still made roughly $400 million when the bank went public. It got voted into the U.S. Senate despite lacking political experience. It was elected New Jersey governor even though its most noteworthy actions as a senator were chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2004 cycle, when the Democrats lost four seats, and helping persuade John Kerry to pick John Edwards as a running mate. And upon getting run out of the governor’s office after one term, the beard assumed control of the MF Global brokerage firm … the aforementioned company that just went bankrupt.
Some might argue that Corzine’s beard is incidental to the body and brain attached to it. But even Corzine himself understands that his facial hair has great power, famously refusing consultants’ advice to shave it before running for office for the first time. He had the right idea, though his reasoning was off. Corzine thought that by shaving, he would be cravenly compromising his integrity in order to look generically appealing. In fact, it’s the beard itself—especially in combination with Corzine’s glasses and fuzzy sweaters—that’s generically appealing. It makes the type-A corporate shark look like Santa Claus or a kindly pediatrician.
It’s a pretty good racket—a lot of notable figures would be well served by developing a signature tic that completely undercut the way they would otherwise be stereotyped, like if David Brooks got a face tattoo and started showing up everywhere visibly stoned. The power of the Corzine beard may even keep the window open for yet another second act, premised on a careful repositioning of the less flattering aspects of his résumé. Without the beard, he’s a villain retiring forever to the Hamptons; with the beard, I’d bet, he has a chance to get some powerful people to consider the following: (1) Taking Goldman Sachs public was his idea and turned out to be enormously profitable; (2) his ouster meant he actually didn’t have anything to do with Goldman’s mid-aughts behavior in the subprime-mortgage market or its involvement in the AIG mess; (3) the Democrats were losing Senate seats in 2004 no matter what; (4) everyone was fooled by John Edwards, including his own wife; (5) no one can remain popular while trying to govern New Jersey.
About the MF Global thing, well, okay, maybe that one’s on him. But, come on, shouldn’t he get another chance? Just look at the guy.