WASHINGTON — A presidential haircut by a high-priced celebrity stylist left the White House Thursday sweeping up questions on whether President Clinton is living up to his carefully groomed image as a regular kind of guy.
At issue was Clinton's decision to delay his Tuesday afternoon departure from Los Angeles International Airport for about an hour so Beverly Hills hairstylist Cristophe could board Air Force One and snip his locks. The tonsorial encounter provoked debate about whether Clinton had held up rush-hour air traffic, and whether a President who professed to like Big Macs and Razorback football should also be groomed by a stylist to Hollywood's flashiest stars.
"Is he still the President of the common man?" White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos was asked at his daily White House briefing.
"Absolutely," he responded. "I mean, the President has to get his hair cut. Everybody has to get their hair cut . . . I think he does have the right to choose who he wants to cut his hair."
The spokesman explained that the Clinton family now has a "personal services" contract with the Belgian-born stylist to provide haircuts, makeup and other unspecified grooming services. Christophe has been reported to get about $200 per cut in his salon.
But the episode drew criticism from political analysts that the President and Hillary Rodham Clinton were appearing to indulge themselves at a time they were asking Americans for sacrifices on taxes and their health care plans.
Hillary Clinton was shorn by New York's Frederic Fekkai for $275 only last week. And that came on the heels of comments about the number of Hollywood celebrities who have been trooping through the White House since January.
"It's a political mistake and cultural myopia," declared Kevin Phillips, a maverick conservative political analyst. He said conservative commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, would feast on the haircut story for weeks, and that it could shave 2% off Clinton's approval rating.
Greg Schneiders, a pollster who worked in the Jimmy Carter White House, said Americans would forgive a President some perks, but perhaps not too close an association with Hollywood: "It smacks of being a little bit light, a little bit star-struck."
Still unclear Thursday was whether the airport delay--at the end of a two-day Western swing to build support for the President's economic plan--had inconvenienced homebound commuters at the busiest hour of the day.
Stephanopoulos said the air traffic tower manager at Los Angeles International Airport had recorded no delays.
But a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles, who asked to remain unidentified, said that Air Force One's late departure had led to a 56-minute closing of two LAX runways. A flight from Yuma, Ariz., was delayed for 25 minutes, while another inbound commuter flight, from Palmdale, fell 17 minutes behind schedule as a result, the spokesperson said.
Diane Reesman, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Airports, could shed no light. "I've heard both stories," she said, referring questions to the White House.
She said the presence of Air Force One does not normally cause any major disruption of airport operations, but does require a halt in all air traffic for about five minutes before its departure.
Earl Vonbuck, Palmdale station manager for Skywest, one of two commuter lines that fly between LAX and Palmdale, said he is personally understanding about delays. "But if somebody told me I was going to be late so the President could get a haircut, I would frown," he said.
Cristophe, who rushed back from a trip to Northern California's wine country to cut the President's hair, is scheduled to open a salon on Washington's Connecticut Avenue in June. He declined comment on the episode. But a spokeswoman, Paulette Kam, said his clients "range from average people to some of Hollywood's top celebrities, including, now, the First Family."
Tom and Roseanne Arnold, Rosanna Arquette, Dustin Hoffman, Markie Post and director Barry Levinson are among Cristophe's entertainment industry clients, she said.
She declined to discuss the price of Cristophe's service contract with the Clintons, or what it entailed, but noted that Cristophe had known the Clintons "for some time" and had done Mrs. Clinton's hair during the campaign.
Clinton has had his hair cut by several stylists since the election. His customary Little Rock, Ark., barber, Jim Miles, of the U.S. Male styling shop, charges a typical Little Rock price--about $20.
Mrs. Clinton has also drawn comment for flying in a facialist from Manhattan's fancy Georgette Klinger salon on Jan. 27. The facialist, Maria Colda, spent 1 1/2 hours at the Clintons' personal quarters in the White House giving Mrs. Clinton a deep pore cleansing, complete with masks and compresses, for an undisclosed price.
The customary barber for Presidents George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald R. Ford and Richard Nixon was Milton Pitts, who visited the White House regularly from Washington's Sheraton Carlton Hotel, and was charging $25 in 1990. But Carter, despite his fondness for simplicity, used one of Washington's more expensive stylists, a Frenchman named Yves Greaux.
Among recent first ladies, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter kept low profiles on their hair dressing and makeup expenses. Nancy Reagan called on noted stylist Robin Weir, who set up a shop in Washington, in part, because of Mrs. Reagan's business.