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A politically correct dress code: Why politicians shed suits at ballgames, disasters -- and why it matters

April 7, 2010 |  9:04 am

President Obama shakes umpires hands at Opening Day at Washington Nationals Park March 5, 2010 by Reuters
When President Obama threw out the first ball at last year's Major League Baseball All-Star game, he wore jeans -- really comfortable, really worn, really vintage American jeans.

He got hammered, with critics decrying the selection as "Mom jeans."

This year when he threw out the first ball at the Washington Nationals Opening Day game this week, he wore khakis.

What presidents and other politicians wear to sports events may seem a trivial matter, and compared to weightier subjects like war, peace and taxes, of course it is. But in recent years, public figures have spent a great deal of time pondering their wardrobe, part of the....

...culture of branding that defines contemporary politics. Red tie or blue may seem an idle concern, but consultants get paid big bucks for making wardrobe decisions. Just ask presidential candidate Al Gore, who hired feminist Naomi Wolf for $15,000 a month during the 2000 campaign to give him a makeover from alpha to beta male.

When it comes to natural or man-made disasters, a less formal look conveys compassion, a roll-up-the-sleeves, I-share-your-pain presence on the scene. Nobody did this as well as Bill Clinton, who even in retirement is shedding his jacket for image. Arguably, the presidency of George W. Bush was effectively cashiered when he failed to show any urgency in responding to Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Both of them were on the scene last month in Haiti, spreading presidential empathy abroad.

Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton comfort owners of the Caribbean Crafts factory after the earthquake in Haiti March 22, 2010 by Getty Images

Then there's the current drama playing out in Montcoal, W. Va., where 25 miners were killed in an explosion and searchers worked through the night looking for a miracle -- a pocket of air that might have protected four other trapped miners.

It is no accident that Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV showed up at the scene in a windbreaker, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin has been briefing in a long-sleeved blue jean shirt and Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine and Health Administration is at the podium mostly sporting T-shirts or sweat shirts. All of it is designed to say: We are on the scene, we are working in the grime, we may be politicians and bureaucrats but we care.

Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine and Health Administration briefing reporters after the mine explosion at Montcoal, W. Va., on April 7, 2010 by Reuters

But nothing stokes controversy as much as what a president wears to work.

When he first took office last year, Obama caused a sartorial stir. The White House released an official photo showing him on his first day at work, at his desk in the Oval Office -- in shirtsleeves, without a jacket. Commentators went crazy.

President Obama on his first day in office in January 2009, without a jacket by White House
Defenders hailed a new, less formal atmosphere, the legacy of Bush's button-up policy for the Oval Office (itself a backlash against Clinton's Oval Office, um, informality).

But former Bush White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card took exception, arguing that “there should be a dress code of respect” in the White House, because "the Oval Office symbolizes ... the Constitution, the hopes and dreams, and I'm going to say democracy. And when you have a dress code in the Supreme Court and a dress code on the floor of the Senate, floor of the House, I think it's appropriate to have an expectation that there will be a dress code that respects the office of the president."

Your thoughts?

-- Johanna Neuman

Photos: Top, Obama at Nationals game (credit: Reuters); former Presidents Bush and Clinton (Getty Images); Keven Stricklin of the U.S. Mine and Health Administration (Reuters); President Obama in the Oval Office (White House)

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