During Robert Bork's confirmation hearings, Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) looked down at the Supreme Court nominee and asked about his beard. The tone of the question was quizzical -- not hostile, but not friendly either. Bork must have heard questions before. Robert Frost said it about walls, but it applies to beards as well: Something there is that doesn't love a beard.

I know. I have worn (sported?) a beard for almost 20 years. Before that, I had a goatee, and before that a mustache -- and before that a face so babyish, so glowing with youth that in my twenties I was routinely carded by bartenders who brought a blush to my face and a look of chagrin to the woman with me. This happened so often that I took to arriving early and, in the manner of someone seeking credit, opening my account before my date arrived. With my credentials established, I was free to buy. I invariably had a whisky sour.

My beard made me look older. It was strictly a utilitarian device, not a political statement -- not a proclamation of bohemianism or even an occupational emblem. I was not yet a writer but an insurance investigator working my way through college. My beard did for me what makeup does for women or a wad of $20 bills for other men. It helped.

But it also vexed. I found this out almost instantly. It was routine for strangers to stop me and demand to know why I had a beard. This happened to me shortly after I joined The Washington Post. I had stopped at a coffee shop somewhere in Maryland to call in a story. As I walked to the back of the place, I passed three or four men sitting in a booth. They stared at me and, after I made the call, one of them confronted me: "Why do you have that beard?" I said I liked the way it looked. No good. The man repeated the question, and I repeated the answer. Finally, he shrugged and let me pass.

Of course, by then a beard had taken on political and cultural overtones. It was worn by (remember?) hippies. Along with long hair for men, a beard announced both vaguely nihilistic politics and a non-conformist life style. It meant, among other things, that the wearer smoked dope, opposed the Vietnam war and maybe lived in a commune. I opposed the war but, after that, I was a non- conforming non-conformist. I neither lived in a commune nor smoked dope, although I had progressed from whisky sours to scotch on the rocks.

Frankly, I liked the fact that many people thought my beard made a statement. Ever since the end of the 19th century, when beards went out of style, clean-shaven has been confused with clean -- and with patriotism, Americanism and, of course, the nearly bald, all-skin look of the military. Beards were worn by writers, poets, artists and, neatly trimmed and augmented by an accent, by psychoanalysts. When I first grew my beard, I was none of those things, but I didn't mind if people thought I was.

But then, in the middle to late 1970s, beards went conservative. Along with long hair, they started to be worn by precisely the sort of people who a few years before thought it sport to beat up people with beards and long hair. By itself, a beard now tells you nothing about the person wearing it. It needs a context. On a construction worker it means one thing, on a suited lawyer something else entirely. With the latter, the beard has returned to what it once was -- an emblem of dissent, but this time by the right. Our last liberal administration was Jimmy Carter's, and it produced not one bearded personality that comes to mind. This is bad news for liberalism.

Now think of the Reagan administration. It's no accident that both Bork and the nominee who followed him, Douglas Ginsburg, are bearded. So, too, are the pugnacious Lyn Nofziger, President Reagan's erstwhile political aide, and C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general. The beard means something. It remains an emblem of non-conformism. Once this was the province of the left. Now it's the right that's querulous, that has a grievance. That's because liberal thinking is conventional, so accepted that it's become the status quo. Bork's testimony gave voice to what his beard already suggested: This man was not only markedly different, but he was proud of it. The same is true of Ginsburg. Both men question the legal assumptions of their day. Right or wrong, they have an independence of mind once associated with the left.

Probably Bork was advised to shave his beard for his confirmation hearings. (He did give up smoking for the sake of the TV cameras.) If he was so advised, he obviously rejected the advice. To shave your beard at someone else's insistence runs counter to the very ethic of a bearded person -- indeed it flies in the face of the reason the beard was grown in the first place. Shaving it is tantamount to a self-inflicted lobotomy, a repudiation of who you are and what you stand for. Bork may have moderated his views at his hearings, but shaving his beard -- an act that could have helped him -- would have been going too far.

Even though I don't think much of Bork's beard (it lacks body), I applauded the fact that he came to the hearings as he is. Two decades of having a beard has taught me how beards irritate those not wearing them. The minute Howell Heflin asked his question, bearded men all over America knew Bork was in serious trouble. Something there is that doesn't love a beard. And that, folks, is why we wear them. ::