The 'Just Folks' Pantomime

In a televised debate with his democratic opponent the other night, Washington state's Republican senator, Slade Gorton, wore a sweater instead of a jacket. The other fellow, Ron Sims, was more dressed up. Gorton, who, whatever else may be said of him, in fact comes as close as anyone possibly could to embodying what people mean when they characterize someone as a "suit," was clearly making a statement. It was: "Hey, where did you get the idea that I'm a suit? I'm real people, just like you." Jimmy Carter, Dan Rather, Jim Leach, even (though I concede they do not fit in with the group) Lyle and Erik Menendez--what is it with sweaters, anyway? Why are they thought to be image softeners and trust generators? Beats me. But in the 1994 election context the sweater-wearing intention is plain. It is to put some distance between those politicians who wear them and the presumably despised establishment/incumbent/insider/formal-wear crowd. In his own variation on the practice, Oliver North recently debated three conventionally attired male opponents for the Senate in Virginia, coatless, in shirt sleeves. He was the tribune of all guys who would rather not wear coats--Shirtsleeve Man, One of You.

These sartorial surprises, ever more in evidence this year, are of course part of a larger repertoire of just-folks pantomime that has been around for at least a couple of decades now. President Ford had his picture taken fixing his own English muffins, to which the response was clearly meant to be, "Wow! Is that a man of the people or what?" Jimmy Garter not only made a point of carrying his own luggage, but also from time to time stopped overnight with what would be billed as an actually normal family. Invariably it would then be reported that in the morning he had dutifully and neatly made his own bed--although I could never understand why this particular act was supposed to make him seem like other men, at least any I have ever known. But never mind: the point is that the trend to this kind of gimmickry is intensifying with the apparently exponential growth of voter disgust with government and its ways. So you will be seeing much more of it, more of the costume as statement, more of the confirmed insider as down-home lout, etc. The rather poignant question, when you think of how much planning goes into the presentation, is this: does it work?

The answer, I think, is: no. I can't prove it, but I would bet that the politicians who pull these kinds of stunts and succeed in getting elected, succeed for some other reason. In the first place, there will be an awkwardness, an artificiality, a note of falsity absolutely impossible to hide when public people try to ingratiate themselves by means of such maneuvers. Often as not the gimmick doesn't convey what it is supposed to, anyway, the cardigan sweater perhaps turning out to be less suggestive of an informal, plain-spoken, working stiff than of, say, grandpa--newly retired, home for lunch and building a little boat to put in a bottle. And, in any case, your basically traditional, suit-and-tie-wearing politician who is at pains to "get with it," almost invariably conveys profound uncertainty as to what the "it" is that he is trying to get with. Such figures always remind me of a hapless dormitory housemother of my acquaintance years ago, who made a perfect fool of herself affecting to be "one of the girls." She also squandered her authority and the respect of her charges in doing so.

That last is the key point and goes to the fundamental ambivalence of voters--of all of us--concerning the way we want our elected officials to be. Garter was a political victim of this ambivalence. Especially at a time when people were hearing about the extravagances of the "imperial presidency" and complaining about the high living of their leaders, the luggage toting and other gestures of apparent self-denial and humility seemed both fitting and smart. But there remained--and always does--a counter impulse: people wanted from him at the same time, as they do from all presidents, some emanation of power and authority, even some aura (though the word may give them hives) of the majesty of the office he held. It is a horrendously difficult mandate this--to remain in the people's eyes (1) a down-to-earth representative who understands them because he is one of them and (2) a leader to whom they can look up because he is somehow well above the rest of the pack in knowledge, mysteriously endowed with superior strengths and talents, a person who can be trusted to guard, to decide, to lead ... in short, I suppose, a parent. In my view one of the reasons Clinton has foundered in acquiring a presidential touch is that he has come on too much as the national son and too little and too unconvincingly as the national dad. Junior versus the old man, regular guy versus slightly remote, authority-bearing guy: we all may pretend that these categories are irrelevant to the conduct of high office, but I believe in some guise or other they are always at play in the public's decisions.

In their utterly different ways, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan managed to crack this political case, both being quite comfortable with the perquisites and authority symbols of office and yet both also conveying some kind of common-touch empathy with people and ability to articulate their sentiments. This is not a retroactive endorsement of their administrations or their views, only a comment on their particular capacity to deal with the double, not to say contradictory, demands the public always puts on officials in this connection--especially presidents. I couldn't give word one of advice or write even the outline of a handbook on how a political person should go about achieving this capacity. I think it comes with the intuitive part of political skill. Of two things only am I certain. One is that effective public officials must convey assurance that they are still in touch and at one with the workaday life shared by the people, and, at the same time, possessed of some special powers that merit special treatment and that justify their having a license to act and speak in the public's behalf. The other is that the sweater has not yet been invented--not by Armani, not by Eddie Bauer, not by Ralph Lauren and not by Sears--that can do any of this for them.