Presidential dressing: a haberdasher's dream


"When did our presidents first start playing dress-up?" asked Slats Grobnik.

What do you mean by "dress-up?"

"Well, I saw President Clinton on TV when he went to Iowa to look at the floods. Actually, I figure he went there so we'd look at TV and see him looking at the floods."

A photo opportunity, you mean.

"Sure. I mean, a president has got enough flunkies who could come into his office and tell him: 'Yeah, Mr. President, there's really legit flooding out there. It's not a hoax.' Then he could stay in his office and get some work done instead of posing for pictures on a bridge."

Maybe he went to the nation's heartland to assure the flood victims that he really cares.

"Yeah? Then if he really cares, why didn't he hoist some sandbags and make himself useful instead of just playing dress-up for the cameras?"

Once again, what do you mean by "dress-up?"

"When I saw him, he was wearing designer jeans, a work shirt and cowboy boots. It's like someone told him, 'OK, you're going out there with the common folks, so you better put on a common-folks costume.' And when he went to see some farmers, he even put a piece of straw in his mouth to chew on."

Maybe he likes to chew on straw.

"Come on, the guy is an egghead lawyer. He was a governor. He was even one of them rowdy scholars."

You mean a Rhodes Scholar, when he attended the elite Oxford College in England.

"Yeah, so you think when he was hanging out with those fancy-pants English guys at Oxford, he chewed on a piece of straw?"

Of course not. But as the old saying goes: When in Iowa, do as the Iowans do.

"Hey, I been in Iowa and I never saw nobody there except a cow chewing on a piece of straw. So the first thing the President of the United States does when he gets to Iowa is stick straw in his mouth. I bet those farmers wondered if he thought he was a cow."

The rustic clothing and the straw were simply his way of reaching out, letting the people know he is just like them, an ordinary guy.

"That's what I mean. I don't want my president to be an ordinary guy. I'm an ordinary guy. You want me as the chief executive of the whole United States?"

A frightening thought.

"Right. So a president shouldn't play dress-up. It's a serious job. No matter what he's doing, a president should always wear a serious dark suit, a serious white shirt, a serious tie and serious shiny shoes. Look at the Japanese. I think they do so good because everybody in Japan dresses serious, except when they go home and put on those funny bathrobes and eat raw fish. After work, they really know how to whoop it up."

True, but times change. With constant TV coverage, we can't demand that our presidents never be seen in casual clothing. Remember, as Desert Storm was drawing near, George Bush was seen almost daily in preppie golf outfits.

It was his way of showing disdain for Hussein.

"Yeah, but that makes me wonder something. When Hitler was bombing London, would the English have kept that stiff upper lip if Winston Churchill wore golf outfits and scooted around in a golf cart?"

I have trouble picturing that.

"So, like I asked, who was the last president who didn't play dress-up?"

Well, Ronald Reagan liked to wear a cowboy hat when he rode a horse at his ranch. And he also favored golf shirts at Camp David. And before him, Jimmy Carter was sometimes a blue jeans kind of guy. Gerald Ford wore golf hats, although I don't think he slept in them, but you never know.

As a Texan, Lyndon Johnson was into oversized cowboy hats. And, of course, Jack Kennedy pioneered the fabled walk-on-the-beach look, with the bare feet, baggy cotton slacks and wind-tossed hair.

"So, hey, I remember: It had to be Richard Nixon."

You're right. Our last no-nonsense clothing president was indeed Nixon.

"Sure. Say what you want about Nixon -- and what ain't been said about him? -- he always wore serious going-to-funeral outfits. I remember seeing him on TV taking a walk on a beach once. I think he was trying to copy the Kennedys, like every other candidate did. But when Nixon took a walk on a beach, he wore Bermuda shorts with long black business stockings and wing-tip shoes. I guess he figured that if World War III broke out, it wouldn't look good in the history books for the commander in chief not to be wearing shoes and socks when he pushed the red button."

But he, too, was from a different era. Ike, Truman, Roosevelt and their predecessors believed that a president should project a serious, business-like image. Clinton is of the 1960s, when one did one's own thing, as revolting as it might be. Also, he is from Arkansas.

So it is not inconsistent for someone from that rustic state to wear jeans and boots and a work shirt.

"Maybe, but I been to Arkansas, and it also ain't inconsistent for somebody from that state to wear bib overalls, a farm cap, and to have a pair of eyeballs that touch at the nose, and be missing a couple of front teeth. And the men look even worse."

Don't be unkind. As for appearances, remember, on formal occasions, George Washington, the father of our country, wore frilly lace shirts, skin-tight trousers, shiny sandals and even a wig.

"You're right. So I guess that means Washington was way ahead of the times."

In what way?

"He was our first yuppie president."

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