Winning Flush

Consciously or not, Dick Cheney masterfully dressed the part of the contrite official.
Consciously or not, Dick Cheney masterfully dressed the part of the contrite official. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

Vice President Cheney sat in the warm glow of his ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Wednesday afternoon and, in an interview with Fox News, accepted responsibility for the hunting accident in which he blasted Texas lawyer Harry Whittington with birdshot. Cheney was dressed in a dark suit with a small American flag pinned to his lapel. But instead of the red tie that is part of his standard business uniform, he was wearing a pink one. It was a lovely shade of rose. On Seventh Avenue, it would be referred to as "blush."

It was intriguing to see Cheney in pink. He has never given the impression of being the sort of gentleman who would get involved with pastels, being neither a preppy nor a dandy nor a man willing to give five seconds' worth of thought to the topic of "style."

History has shown that Cheney does not particularly care how his attire might be perceived. He did, after all, wear a parka and ski cap last year to a formal ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, while all the other dignitaries wore topcoats. So it would be foolish to suggest that he consciously chose such a gentle, soothing shade of neckwear to signal vulnerability and warmth. And certainly, that is not the way in which his tie was received.

Cheney's pink four-in-hand registered in the manner of pigtails on a gangsta rapper. In the parlance of hip-hop, the look is full of macho swagger and the not-so-subtle suggestion that even with the hairdo of a pre-adolescent girl, the rapper is still the toughest thing standing in the room. The incongruous sartorial flourish is a display of irony and confidence.

Whether he intended it to do so or not, Cheney's pink tie came across as a mocking nod to the culture's well-trod -- and often absurd -- path to forgiveness after a public debacle: Pass through the valley of silence. Turn right at the big pit of self-righteousness. Wallow in spotlit contrition. Be sure not to look sweaty and shifty-eyed on camera. ("Oprah" appearance optional.)

Cheney's pink-tie interview reminds one of another instance in which pink was an accessory to remorsefulness. In April 1994, Hillary Clinton -- then the first lady -- held her "pink press conference." She sat in the State Dining Room dressed in a pink-and-black St. John knit suit to answer questions about Whitewater, her family's finances and the $100,000 in profit she'd made trading cattle futures. During the course of her 66-minute exchange with reporters, she expressed regret for being less than forthcoming with the public.

Observers parsed Clinton's pink suit for meaning and it was read as deliberate costuming. A tough woman had wrapped herself in sugary innocence. She was trying to seduce an audience into believing that nothing untoward could have been done by the little lady in baby-blanket pink.

It was difficult to see any irony in Clinton's pink suit, although there well may have been plenty. A woman in pink, exuding all the connotations of girls being made of "sugar and spice and everything nice," is a cliche that stubbornly lingers in the culture. Clinton wasn't so much mocking the process as succumbing to it. She was settling into her "proper" place if only for the photo op.

For Clinton, a pink suit worked like a shield. For Cheney, a pink tie was a weapon.

The vice president spoke to Fox's Brit Hume for 27 minutes. Cheney took responsibility for shooting Whittington, a man he described alternately as a "good friend" and "an acquaintance." He spent a significant portion of that time describing the logistics of the shooting. He acknowledged pulling the trigger, but he never uttered the phrase "I'm sorry." And he expressed no regret about the way in which the public learned about the accident -- from an eyewitness a day after the fact.

For less than half an hour, Cheney played the contrition game to silence the chattering classes. He jumped through their hoops and he appropriated their costumes. And he came out ahead.

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