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Crossing that Fine Line

Can an editor driven by curiosity go too far? Nah, never more than a whisker

The career of an editor is checkered with an assortment of complaints—paper cuts, cold coffee, inconvenient deadlines and platitudinous prose. Continual use of a dictionary is not on that list, you’ll notice.

But an editor presses on, compelled by a genuine love of storytelling and great writing—not to mention an unquenchably inquisitive (nosey) nature.

That brings us to mustaches. A recent Texas Co-op Power story that was getting the requisite rigorous scouring made mention of a gentleman’s handlebar mustache. The photo showed a rugged individual with a bountifully hirsute countenance. Impressive mustache, but that’s not a handlebar, is it?

Well, let’s just check that out. Googling, which has replaced doodling as an editor’s favorite diversion, is the most utilitarian service the Internet offers—besides email, maybe the second-best diversion. Turns out, there’s an American Mustache Institute, with a website that offers no fewer than 18 illustrations and descriptions of AMI-certified “lower nose accoutrements.” Fancy writing. Makes you wonder if great thinkers wear mustaches.

Anyway, the AMI would call the mustache in question a horseshoe because it looks like an upside-down letter “U,” which looks like a horseshoe straddling the mouth and chin. A handlebar is a little fancier, a little more stylized, and is marked by a nifty upward twist of the ends. In fact, done properly, a handlebar requires dedicated grooming and a little styling wax. An editor hates to generalize, but one style of mustache seems to say, “I spend a lot of time standing in front of a mirror.” The other style seems to say, “I’d rather stand in front of a bar.”

Nonetheless, the story was adjusted to indicate that the gentleman in question wore a horseshoe mustache. But the research couldn’t stop there. An editor is nosey, remember, and takes great pride in knowing a whole lot of inane facts about a whole lot of inane topics. Like: What kinds of people wear mustaches? (Of course mostly men! Stop it. Editors don’t think that way.) Who was the last president to wear a mustache? How about the last Texas governor? Who tends to wear mustaches … cowboys? Thugs? Hippies? Rock stars? Yeah, maybe. And you don’t see a lot of elected officials or business leaders or popes with mustaches. What does all of this mean?

It seems to mean that we’ll buy your music no matter what you look like—or maybe because of what you look like. But we’d probably rather vote for you if you’re clean-shaven. And it’s not even because voters have it in for mustachioed candidates. It’s just that most candidates don’t have mustaches. Quick, name the last presidential candidate to have a mustache. Herman Cain, you say? OK, but name one that actually represented his party in the general election. That would be Republican Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.

Harry S. Truman won that election, continuing the country’s long streak of clean-shaven presidents. We haven’t had a president with a mustache since William Howard Taft, 1909-13. Taft had what the AMI would probably classify as a bushy walrus groomed into a handlebar. Texas hasn’t had a governor with a mustache since Thomas Mitchell Campbell, 1907-11. His was a sprawling walrus.

There’s plenty of postulating online that some especially evil men with mustaches basically ruined it for any respectable man to even think about showing his face in public sporting a mustache. Think Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Genghis Khan. Hitler wore a toothbrush mustache, a style that basically died with him.

An editor strives for balance and so would be quick to point out that besides some unforgettable despots, plenty of remarkably accomplished men wore mustaches. Einstein, anyone? How about Mark Twain, Martin Luther King Jr., President Theodore Roosevelt and beloved newscaster Walter Cronkite? Certainly everybody could join in this discussion and throw out names. Tom Selleck, actor. Wyatt Earp, legendary sheriff of the Western frontier. Rocker Frank Zappa. Think of some of Hollywood’s great mustaches: Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Wilford Brimley and Sam Elliott.

No thoughtful and well-rounded editor would run a mustache story that drops a lot of names without mentioning fictional funnymen like the Swedish Chef from “The Muppet Show;” Yosemite Sam, the Looney Tunes gunslinger; and Ned Flanders of “The Simpsons.”

At some point, though, an editor must cut the story off. Tidy things up, ensure a well-crafted ending, close the dictionary. Run the spellcheck—just in case. Finish that cup of … coffee? And then relish a job well done: a story decidedly improved by diligent editing, grammatical dexterity and proficiency at verifying inane facts.

That should also mean no corrections, the most repugnant reality an editor must face from time to time. Errors. Misidentification. Sloppy attention to details. Calling a horseshoe a fu manchu or—worse—a handlebar. That’s when an editor just needs to shake it off. Hang in there.

You know … keep a stiff upper lip.

Tom Widlowski, associate editor