David Axelrod’s moustache is much the same as old-style Peter Mandelson’s, as worn by ‘Mandy’ in the pre-New Labour days when he was trying and failing to turn Neil Kinnock into the stuff of legend.
Axelrod, the communications strategist who helped Barack Obama win two US presidential elections, has just signed a consultancy contract with current UK Labour leader Ed Miliband – a boyish figure who hardly seems old enough to grow a moustache.
Mandelson, you may recall, was Tony Blair’s secret weapon in his successful bid for the Labour leadership in 1994, when Mandy disguised himself by shaving off his moustache and going by the name ‘Bobby’. Re-re-named ‘the Prince of Darkness’, he led New Labour’s team of spin doctors in the run-up to the 1997 general election landslide in which he himself was elected MP for Hartlepool; he went on to be a controversial cabinet minister and European commissioner.
Although Axelrod is the man most closely associated with Obama’s successive election victories, even his moustache bristles with the stuff that sloughs off successful candidates. In Blair and especially in Obama, the electorate saw and identified with an ethereal quality which both connects with the world and leaves worldliness behind. Exactly the kind of contradictory magic which a moustache is made to dispel; as Marcel Duchamp must have known when he drew one on the Mona Lisa.
Not the Mother of God, but (damaged) God himself: in post-ideological politics, the electorate consecrates its favoured candidate, who is both put on a pedestal and prepared for crucifixion later. The reason for this mysticism is straightforward: without a meaningful battle of substantial ideas, there is no other way for politics to rise above horse trading.
The real mystery is the role of men with moustaches. How do they fit in to a quasi-religious experience? Perhaps part of their achievement is to keep all incoming out ofthe way, so that nothing need impede the moment of transcendence which is variously described as Hope, Change or Social Justice. Acting as feet of clay they also drain their candidate of responsibility, leaving him gravity-free to exist as proto-holy spirit.
Without his man of the moustache, Obama could never have seemed so clean shaven; would not have been deemed acceptable to so many white voters.
Will Axelrod now enable Miliband to become equally magical – who knows?