When Mayor Anthony Williams took an evening stroll through the D.C. neighborhood of Adams-Morgan two weeks ago, he revealed something few politicians are willing to show while on official business. The man exposed his legs. He was wearing shorts. Is he foolhardy or fearless?

Whether Williams's choice of attire was appropriate is not at issue. After all, the gentleman was strolling through the community and surveying a crime scene. He wasn't delivering a speech or presiding over a meeting. Informality was completely justified.

But such casual attire for politicians, who always seek to exude authority and omniscience, has always been risky business. Typically, when a male power broker readies himself for a casual outing, he reaches for his chino trousers and his polo shirt. Or, if he has exceptionally poor taste, he slips on a jogging suit even if he has no intention of moving at a pace any faster than a saunter.

Shorts are reserved for when he must be publicly athletic. And even then, when the shorts are undeniably appropriate--even required--he risks gleeful mocking. Consider President Clinton. He was roundly ridiculed for his skimpy running shorts and pudgy legs. To be sure, his were not the most tasteful running clothes and his legs were not the most muscular, but at least the president was actually putting the shorts and the legs to healthful use.

But then, almost eight years later, here comes Williams, brazenly wearing his walking shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a fish. Understand that this was not the first time Williams has worn shorts for the cameras. He campaigned in them, too.

Williams looks just fine in his casual togs; he is neither slovenly nor corpulent. The interest in these clothes is not an aesthetic one. Instead, what matters in his choice of shorts and a T-shirt is what the combination communicates. Some would suggest that anyone in Williams's position who wanders amid his constituents in such casual attire is insulting the office that he holds. They would have their leaders in a suit and tie at all times.

But the entire language of professional attire is changing. And Williams's timing is, if not astute, lucky. At a time when a host of businesses no longer require employees to wear suits, when the richest man in the world is a khakis-and-sport-shirt kind of a guy, a suit can be too stuffy. It can suggest stodginess or speak of an old, obsolete guard. Do Vice President Gore's suits lend him a patina of authority, for instance, or merely reinforce an image of stiffness?

For Williams, the lack of a suit suggests that his walk through the streets was not a perfunctory official outing by a cool bureaucrat. Instead, his informal dress sent the message that this wasn't the mayor coming to survey a crime scene but rather this was "Tony, coming to listen." This is an age of empathy. It's not enough to simply understand another person's anguish, one must feel it. And while a well-suited fellow with an authoritative swagger might still have a community's best interest at heart, it's becoming more difficult for him to convey that fact convincingly.

How, after all, can pain and suffering penetrate the power broker's trusted armor?

CAPTION: Exposure in Adams-Morgan.

CAPTION: Mayor Anthony Williams, making it cool to dress for the heat, campaigning in 1998.