Earth-toned shirts and other political sins

Posted: Oct 11, 2000 12:00 AM
The urgency of the occasion tends to sometimes overwhelm -- debates, polls, Social Security lockboxes and Al Gore's snorts and sighs. Nevermind all that: The time has come, on the eve of our second presidential debate, to raise the matter that truly counts in Campaign 2000. It is ... it is ... can't we get the candidates out of those dumb clown shirts in which, innocent of necktie, they stalk us from rec center to grocery store? Great Coolidge's ghost! What's wrong, please, with knotting a necktie before asking for our aid? I grant that many may view this large matter in smaller terms -- a personal peeve or a crochet, on the part of one old enough to remember disco. No such thing! This matter has heft. In short, if once more I see Al Gore lounging around the local coffee shop, wooing voters while dressed in a long-sleeved, earth-toned sport shirt, collar agape, I may start raising money for a full-page ad in Gentleman's Quarterly. Nor do I care if Ernest Al, dressed thus, melts into a particular occasion, like milk into latte. Presidential candidates don't dress the way ours do this season. Various commentators jabbed at the candidates for dressing alike in the first debate: dark suit, white shirt and red tie. Hooey! In both cases, it was likely the best we had seen either of them looking for days. They looked like men seeking to administer a mighty nation's affairs with dignity and seriousness; this, instead of looking like your next-door neighbor, who just stopped by to say "heigh-ho" and see if he couldn't borrow the leaf blower. Of the two candidates, earth-toned Al is the greater offender against dignity, even unto holding forth for the TV cameras on a Florida beach, while wearing shorts and no shoes. (Where's Nixon, patrolling the California shoreline in those famous wingtips? Dead, and don't we know it.) Bush, at least -- coatless, with sleeves rolled up -- often wears a dress shirt and necktie. Still, my fellow Texan is into sports attire for good-ol'-boy kinds of appearances. On Labor Day weekend, he, or someone else, actually got Dick Cheney to don a sport shirt. It was like catching Elie Wiesel in a bubble bath. Campaign strategists, one suspects, have told the downscale duo -- Bush and Gore -- that neighborly does it; that the American people don't want no stuffed shirts comin' around asking for their vote. This is false and patronizing. And it shows to what depths the culture of informality may be shoving us. A century ago, when Teddy Roosevelt -- no pretty boy -- came around asking for votes, he wore a pince nez, frock coat, and a gold watch and chain. Those days seem unlikely to return. On the other hand, it wasn't but a couple of elections ago that coat and tie for candidates was de rigueur -- as head waiters, etiquette writers and similar scolds used to say. Standards of dress in the general population may be lower than ever before in the history of democracy. There is, for instance, the custom called "casual Friday.'' Employers invite otherwise civilized employees to show up at the office dressed as if for a Wal-Mart closeout. Whereas not many years ago, college students wore coat and tie to football games, you now can't guarantee that half the adults there won't show up in shorts. Non-presidentially nominated adults, at a public gathering, wear shorts: Let us pass this sordid topic in silence. Let's rather confine ourselves to presidential gravitas -- to dignity and a sense of respect for occasion and circumstance. You can't do gravitas in an earth-toned sport shirt. It looks silly. You say the voters don't want gravitas? Yes, they do. Not only do they want it, they expect it. Government is serious business. You want it done by serious people. Serious people go to the trouble of looking serious, so that others may see them this way. Even Bill Clinton understands that without a necktie you're not totally serious. It's the natural law, unrepealable by focus groups or sartorial debaucheries on "casual Fridays.'' As for Clinton's idol, John F. Kennedy, he understood the law thoroughly. JFK might have antagonized hat manufacturers by going bareheaded -- the first president to do so -- but he knew enough about gravitas to prescribe silk hats and cutaways for the presidential party on Inauguration Day 1961. You might hate the new frontier, but, partly by how they dressed, you knew the new frontiersmen took themselves seriously. Why, you almost wanted to time their demise with the aid of a large pocket watch, affixed to a gold chain and stowed in a vest pocket.