Can a voter discern something about political candidates from their manner of dress? I think so. Not what they think about issues, but how they want you to think of them.
Sen. J. William Fulbright, Rhodes Scholar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, at home in the world, would return to Arkansas to campaign in the legendary checked sport shirt, “Just Plain Bill.” He didn’t wear it in the ‘74 campaign, and it wouldn’t have helped that year.
Interestingly, most of Fulbright’s Arkansas contemporaries, his Senate colleague John L. McClellan, Rep. Wilbur Mills and Gov. Orval Faubus, rarely campaigned in anything other than suit and tie. They seemed to believe, and their success appeared to demonstrate, that voters appreciated them as men of influence and expected them to dress the part. In his splendid biography of Faubus, Roy Reed writes that a flash of elegance, Faubus believed, offered small-town Arkansans something not to resent but respect.
Gov. Beebe, impeccable as any CEO at the office, occasionally makes an official engagement in — what else? — a golf shirt, but it’s invariably an event at which he blends in perfectly.
Mr. Beebe’s predecessor had downsized substantially by the time he hit the ‘08 presidential trail, so his serious suits, many of them a gift from the late philanthropist Jennings Osborne, and his Hong Kong-tailored shirts fit him better than did the South Carolina primary. (Huckabee’s re-emergent waistline may have been the first clue that he’d sit out the ‘12 sweepstakes).
Not surprisingly, the Arkansan who did make it to the White House dressed rather smarter than as governor. The stakes in appearance were higher, for one thing, and the income a bit higher as well. During his statehouse years I wondered if his overall effect (which sometimes resembled overalls) was contrived to project humility, that he knew better all along.
Which brings us to this year’s presidential hopefuls, beginning with the incumbent and his challenger:
A fair enough closet President Obama has, though a little stiff, almost too understated, too cool, though as such it reflects his persona. But there’s a horrendous, inexcusable offense: ankle-length socks, which too frequently offer the world the spectacle of bare presidential shin, a bony one, at that. At least he avoids the wing collars the previous Democratic president preferred with black tie, which gave him the look of a Vapors Club headwaiter in the Hot Springs of his youth.
Mitt Romney: The Republican nominee looks more at home in bespoke Bain boardroom worsted than the jeans and navy blazer that, save for worsted environments, remains his customary campaign kit. The jeans don’t look terribly worn, for one thing, but if me makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania expect to see them on weekends — until and unless he wins a second term.
The GOP runners-up, beginning with an admonition to all of them against sartorial campaign cliché: The first Republican debate of the ‘12 campaign had barely ended before I went to my closet and threw away the only solid red tie I possessed. I urge every man of Republican, Democrat, Green or Tea Parties to do the same.
Tim Pawlenty: Not in the race long enough for anyone to notice what he wore.
Rick Santorum: Red hot rhetoric with, naturally, tie to match. He went to sleeveless sweater vests in the latter stages of the campaign, but gave them a bad name by having his name embroidered over the left breast. Who did he think we thought he was?
Ron Paul: Crimson cravat, Red State — oh, you get it. You got it every time he appeared on TV, his tie framed by dark suits, none of which fit. Their collars stood a good two inches away from his neck, a metaphor, perhaps, for the gap between candidate and electorate.
Rick Perry: Red State, red tie, sigh. Worse, French cuffs. This is a profound no-no for presidential candidates until and unless they raise their hand at noon on January 20th. The president from Arkansas understood.
Buddy Roemer: French cuffs gone absolutely commit-me-before-I-dress-again berserk. Instead of the intended yoke application, Roemer folded his cuffs into a circle before securing them with dime store links. The result was so ghastly he should be glad no one noticed he was running.
Jon Huntsman: Though he wore them with élan — the French cuff mistake again. But it was his fluency in Mandarin, and his tendency to tell the truth, that killed his candidacy.
Donald Trump: A sometime exception to the Republican red tie rule, but no better: if his pink satin necktie had not disqualified him, his hair would have. And that’s aside from his overall goofiness.
Newt Gingrich: No other word for it — slob. Standing next to his wife, he looked like Billy Carter alongside Jackie Kennedy. Or William Howard Taft, with a less skilled tailor.
Michelle Bachmann: Campaigning in leather jackets and six-inch stilettos (where was the whip?), no wonder she suffered migraine headaches.
May the best man win. Win or lose, however, I’m sending Mr. Obama some knee-lengths.
• • •
Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.