John McCain dresses like Mr. Rogers. As the senator himself might ask: My friends, do you really need a position paper to understand why this is an unfortunate situation?
McCain wears crew-neck sweaters with his shirt, tie and suit jacket. This style flatters some people, namely those who are relatively lanky through the torso, because it keeps them from looking like the proverbial stuffed shirt. It works on those who tend toward a professorial style and in whose wardrobe suede elbow patches would not be out of place. The style also is appropriate for those whose voices have yet to change and who count Thomas the Tank Engine as their favorite diversion. The senator is not among those people.
He seems to wear these sweaters because they are warm. And indeed, the historical record has captured him campaigning in Vermont, in the snow, in a suit jacket and sweater. But he would cut a more sophisticated image if he took off the sweater and wore an overcoat. Gloves wouldn't hurt, either.
Sweaters -- crew-necks and cardigans -- have warm and kindly connotations. Public figures, male ones at any rate, use them to soften their public image or to appear more lovable or paternal. Dan Rather wore sweaters on the air during his anchorman days when he was trying to be cuddly. Jimmy Carter was a sweater man. Occasionally, Captain Kangaroo wore a cardigan.
Privately, McCain very well may be sweet and fuzzy. But that is not the impression he gives in public. During a recent debate, his head looked as though it just might explode in anger during a brawl with Mitt Romney over waterboarding. Cranial eruptions and crew-neck sweaters don't go together.
McCain has a dress-shirt problem compounding the sweater conundrum. His collars always appear a smidge too small. They fit so snugly that they give the impression that his head is caught in a vise. Add the layer of a sweater and McCain looks as if he is engaged in a wrestling match with his attire.
All too often the concept of dressing one's age is applied to women. There are certainly enough teeny-bopper frocks hanging in the adult clothing department waiting to trip up women. But men can fall into that trap. A man dressed as if he is heading off to have his fifth-grade class picture taken is no more appealing than a woman dressed as though she's going to the prom.
There is an uncomfortable Peter Pan quality to McCain's clothing, a sense that he hasn't quite moved beyond the affectations -- as well as the collar size -- of his youth. Is there Winnie the Pooh embroidered on those sweaters? Is his name scribbled on the label in Magic Marker?
A man doesn't have to embrace fashion's avant-garde to prove that he's forward-thinking. And he doesn't need to dress like a child to proclaim his vitality. But a man must always know how to dress his age.