It was one paragraph in Style's Reliable Source column July 1:
"The White House was positively gleeful yesterday about a Newsday report that there were actually no real delays at Los Angeles Airport when Bill Clinton got his now-famous haircut from Cristophe of Beverly Hills. The Long Island, N.Y., newspaper, citing records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, said there were no circling planes and no traffic jams on runways."
And that was it.
The Post, it is true, had broken the story of the haircut in the same place: Four paragraphs in Reliable Source on May 20. But in the six weeks that followed, the paper -- and the rest of the media -- gave the haircut enough attention to make it just about the most famous trim since Samson's.
So when an important piece of the story turned out to be wrong, The Post and everybody else needed to match Newsday's reporting or give prominent display to their report. USA Today had it on the front page. Other papers typically told it in briefs inside the A section.
Post readers may remember that the paper's second-day news story on Page A11 said "commercial planes may have been delayed" and that "airline officials in Los Angeles were quoted in wire service reports saying 'a flight from Yuma, Ariz., was delayed for 25 minutes and another from Palmdale, Calif., had to circle for 17 minutes.' "
Comes now Newsday's June 30 story, reporting, "Commuter airlines that fly routes reportedly affected by the president's haircut confirmed they have no record of delays that day." Newsday's account said that Federal Aviation Administration records show the only holdup caused by closure of two LAX runways was an unscheduled air taxi leaving the gate two minutes late.
After the May 21 story, The Post focused mostly on the price of the presidential coiffure and Mr. Clinton's blemished public image, and less on the reported interference with other travelers.
But that distinction is probably lost on most readers: The haircut flap is the haircut flap, whether because it directly affected people or because the White House is scrambling to put a spin on the costly do.
And the main reason the president had this particular PR trouble for everyone to cover was that journalists thought it a bigger story because actual people were affected.
Between the first Reliable Source column and the one that quoted Newsday on July 1, The Post spoke of the haircut more than 50 times, nine times in front-page stories.
The notion that other travelers had to wait turned up in most references in the first month. There was so much coverage of the whole thing that after four weeks or so, stories could move to shorthand: Refer to "haircut" in connection with the White House or to "Hair Force One," and no reader needed any background.
So what if some enterprising reporter had actually checked out the first-day wire service reports of delays and determined right off that no real people had had to wait?
The haircut still would have been a story: The president did get his hair done by a Hollywood (Boo! Hiss!) hair stylist who charges $200 for a cut. The president paid for the haircut, but since it probably set him back 10 to 20 times what most men expect to pay, it did not help his image as a man of the people, a man of the people who just happened at the time to be asking everyone for sacrifice.
So a story, yes. But without people being delayed at LAX, this tale would have been easier to dismiss as meaningless. Journalists justify coverage of trivial matters by drawing from them some larger issue or symbolism.
In this case, we had not just a $200 haircut delivered on a government plane, but a $200 haircut delivered on a government plane in disregard for the plans of voters and taxpayers who also wanted to use Los Angeles Airport.
That also boosted this demonstration of self-indulgence onto the list of White House image gaffes that were then the hot story about the presidency. But without travelers being put out, it's doubtful the haircut would have lasted long in the company of the aborted nomination of Lani Guinier and the firing of the White House travel office staff.
So now Newsday reports that the whole haircut controversy really started and ended with a $200 haircut aboard Air Force One.
Legend will remember this two ways: Travelers suffering presidential excess, and the media doing the absolute minimum to correct that.