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Front Page - Friday, September 29, 2023

Rogers column: Dress code drama camouflages bigger political ills

Pennslyvania Sen. John Fetterman - shutterstock.com

My introduction to a dress code came on the first day of seventh grade, the coming-of-age transition from elementary school to junior high. My friend and neighbor Ken Hase showed up for the orientation assembly in short pants.

Wrong move, the assistant principal said.

I don’t recall that he actually mentioned 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 11, but he in effect passed along its advice: It’s time to give up childish ways and to wear big-boy pants.

Over the course of four decades in the newspaper business, I rarely had to wear what is known as business attire: basically, a coat and tie. Some people dress for success; I usually looked like I was dressed for recess. But I adopted the proper look when the situation called for it.

Now business attire is in the news with the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, relaxing the rules requiring it for members. Or, as some prefer to think of it, the latest proof that this country is going to hell in a handbasket.

No one is admitting it but the change was apparently designed at least partly to convenience Sen. John Fetterman, whose preferred garb can sometimes make the notoriously down-dressed Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots look like Beau Brummel.

Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was never going to blend in with his fellow lawmakers. He’s 6-foot-8, shaves his head and recently replaced his signature goatee with an equally distinctive mustache.

When you add to that his preferred clothing for outside the Senate chamber – a baggy Carhartt hoodie and droopy shorts, with (large) athletic shoes – it makes for quite an arresting visual in the halls of the Capitol.

All of which is no doubt crafted to send a message: I am not your typical politician. I do things my way.

Not everyone is pleased with the dress code change. Republican senators (surprise!) were the first to complain, with almost all signing a letter to Schumer stating: “Allowing casual clothing on the Senate floor disrespects the institution we serve and the American families we represent.”

Then some Democratic senators indicated they weren’t on board with the change, either, including the majority whip, Dick Durbin of Illinois.

“We need to have standards when it comes to what we’re wearing on the floor of the Senate,” Durbin said. So, we’ll see. By the time you read this the change may have been reversed.

In any event it reminds me of the General Assembly’s own brouhaha over a dress code this past session. Even before House Republicans booted Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones for showing insufficient deference to the Powers That Be, some had taken issue with Pearson’s wardrobe choice for his swearing in: a traditional West African dashiki.

“[W]earing it is paying homage to the ancestors who made this opportunity possible,” Pearson said, by way of explanation.

This did not suit House Republicans. Their House conference responded with a tweet suggesting to Pearson that “If you don’t like the rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.” A conservative commentator piled on by referring to the dashiki as a “blouse,” thus introducing an element of homophobia to the proceedings.

Are these two tales basically the same story, with Republicans focused more on enforcing fashion rules than on actually governing? Sort of. Republicans dearly love to cloak their lack of ideas with their outrage over some trivial this or that.

But Fetterman and Pearson also provided the opening by choosing to flout the standards in a way designed to draw attention to themselves, to mark them visually as opponents of the status quo.

I’d tend to give Pearson a pass on his dashiki, though I think it’s roughly the equivalent of me showing up to work in a kilt. I’d rather see him use his formidable intellect and personality to outsmart the other side rather than to goad them with minor jabs. It will be interesting to see if both Justins – they’re similarly talented – can find ways to be effective, rather than just disruptive.

As for Fetterman, major props for his battle to overcome a stroke and the depression that resulted. But I’ve always lived by the maxim that you should never look worse than you have to, and he seems intent on doing just that. To which I invoke that long ago seventh-grade lesson: Grow up.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.