On Culture

Robin Givhan: At Health-Care Reform Gatherings, Clothes Speak Loudly, Too

In Lebanon, Pa., senator and constituents have a clothes encounter.
In Lebanon, Pa., senator and constituents have a clothes encounter. (By Bradley C. Bower -- Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Sunday, August 16, 2009

It seems safe to say that of the hundreds of thousands of style guides currently for sale on Amazon, not one of the didactic, shop-your-closet authors was prescient enough to outline the appropriate attire for those public occasions when good citizens decide to behave like raving lunatics and turn lawmakers into punching bags. What does one wear to a town hall meeting on health care when the sole reason for attending is to shout down one's congressman like a peevish teenager in the midst of a hormonal rage?

As congressional representatives have gone home to their constituents this summer to sell health care reform, they have occasionally been met by concerned voters with pointed questions, reasonable doubts and fear-of-the-unknown frustrations about what lies ahead. Citizens want to make sure that their representatives have thought through this whole health care reconfiguration.

But lawmakers have also had to deal with innumerable folks who believe that the legitimacy of their protests over reform will be determined solely by their lung capacity. The louder and more obnoxious the scream, the more their message will register with the power brokers in the nation's capital -- or at least that is the thinking. There is, of course, a smidge of logic to this strategy. After all, if the squeaky wheel gets the grease, then perhaps the bellowing citizen can influence policy.

In the meantime, however, the ugly-American images coming out of these town hall shouting matches resonate in a way that does the nation no favors. It highlights the obvious disconnect between the politicians and the people they represent. The photographs do particular damage to the protesters who aim to make a convincing argument that their position is both logical and righteous. But it is hard to have faith in the cool syllogism of someone whose face is scrunched into a road map of rage.

By and large, the shouters are dressed in a way that underscores their Average Guy -- or Gal -- bona fides. They are wearing T-shirts, baseball caps, promotional polo shirts and sundresses with bra straps sliding down their arm. They wear fuchsia bandannas and American-flag hankies wrapped around their skulls like sweatbands. A lot of them look as though they could be attending a sporting event and, as it turns out, the congressman is the opposing player they have decided to heckle. If not for the prohibition on signs and banners inside these meetings, one could well expect to see some of these volatile worker bees wearing face paint and foam fingers, albeit the highlighted digit would be one expressing foul displeasure rather than competitive rank or skill level.

The elected officials stand in front of a lectern or roam the hall -- making sure not to stray too far from the protective reaches of their security detail, just in case a yeller lets a right hook fly. At the town halls hosted by Sens. Arlen Specter and Claire McCaskill, both legislators dressed for business. Specter was in a dark suit and tie. McCaskill wore a chocolate brown jacket with a narrow standing collar. Sen. Ben Cardin wore a dark suit with a navy striped tie to his meeting with his health care mob. They all peered at the irate speakers in some combination of stoic disbelief, subdued annoyance and preternatural calm.

For anyone who has ever been in relationships with shouters, they will know that few things irritate venters more than having their high-decibel rants met with the exaggerated serenity of Nurse Ratched. It's the ultimate kind of power play -- a political rope-a-dope -- and the non-responders know it.

The agitated souls regularly bring up the fact that members of Congress have platinum-level health care plans. They demand to know whether congressmen will sign on to the much-maligned and still undefined public option that is part of the reform discussion. The underlying focus of this grudge match is, of course, about power -- as concentrated in Congress, the presidency, the special interests, the wealthy. The rage emerges from a feeling of helplessness that some version of reform is going to occur whether these citizens like it or not.

That sentiment is underscored in photo after photo. The common man, in his T-shirt and jeans, is shouting passionately at "the suit." In the videos from these meetings, audio is unnecessary. It's clear who's in charge and who is shouting into the wind.

What would happen if all those unhappy townspeople showed up for these meetings in suit jackets, like high school debaters prepared to take on their opponents with facts and nimble intellect rather than histrionics? Would they garner more respect? Would they compel more lawmakers to rethink their positions rather than merely repeat, again and again -- in a voice that has the tone of an impatient kindergarten teacher -- the same core points? Would legislators stop telling that condescending anecdote about how people profess their love for government-run Medicare even as they, in the same breath, express their distrust and disdain for government-run medical care? (Maybe snot-nosed mockery is an instinctive response to illogic, but it's not the most productive way to assuage those who fear the unknown.)

The assemblies have the look of a lone bean-counter and a throng of unhappy workers. Visually, there's nothing to indicate we-are-all-in-this-together. It's an odd juxtaposition, given that during campaigns, politicians are quick to roll up their sleeves or slip into a Carhartt jacket when making a sales pitch to the working masses. The point of the clothing change is to indicate empathy and solidarity. Instead, for these town halls, the legislators have been going out in full Washington regalia. (President Obama has been photographed dressed more casually in the Oval Office than he was for his recent question-and-answer session with the regular Joes of New Hampshire.)

Washington's power brokers have suited up to underscore their authority and the seriousness of the subject matter. And bully for them. But their attire also says: I am the boss of you. All those howling citizens -- in their T-shirts and ball caps and baggy shorts -- are saying: No, you're not.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company