How quickly we emerge, how quickly we can emerge, is the contentious debate. Their masks are part of that give-and-take.
On Tuesday, when the country’s leading health experts offered remote testimony on the nation’s coronavirus response to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, most of the lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill were seen on camera wearing protective masks.
Some, such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), wore basic, medical versions. But several of her male colleagues turned their masks into statements of style, nationalistic cheerleading or an optimistic insistence that this too shall pass.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) attended the hearing with a lushly tie-dyed bandanna stretching across his mouth and nose. At a glance, he looked a bit like a reformed hippie nostalgically recalling his years dodging tear gas while protesting against The Man. He also looked like he had a date to hunt down a cattle rustler after the hearing. Then again, he also resembled a do-it-yourselfer promoting his own Etsy page. Kaine was everyone and no one.
Ultimately, the impression Kaine left was that he was publicly committing to doing the right thing while refusing to acquiesce to the idea that he might have to do the right thing for months to come. He had not invested in an actual face mask for the occasion. He was making do — as we all must.
His colleagues were more formally masked. In their wardrobe, face coverings had swiftly become one of the few ways that the Capitol Hill gentleman’s uniform could be personalized. Socks. Tie. Mask.
Scientists have said masks are less effective when worn over a beard. All that chin fuzz makes the gap between face and fabric even more pronounced. But no matter. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was sporting a gray shutdown beard under his University of North Carolina Tar Heels face mask. The senator, whose stock trades in the early weeks of the pandemic are under investigation, looked decidedly more rumpled than usual. The message: He’s been hunkered down like his constituents, deprived of even a haircut and shave.
He used his face mask to hype his home state and to indulge in a bit of silent rah-rah sports banter — a favorite, noncontroversial conversational pit stop for the political set.
Burr’s brother in beards, the ever contrarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has recovered from covid-19 and tweeted he considers himself immune after testing positive for antibodies, did not model a mask for public consumption.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wore a face mask that looked as if it could have been stitched from a traditional pocket square. Compared with the other gentlemen in the room, Murphy was strikingly well-groomed. His hair neat. His chin smooth. His suit sharp. These are chaotic, dizzying times, but Murphy is here to show the country that he’s not spinning in his shoes. Trust him, they are shined.
And during a break from the hearing, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) wore his red, white and blue mask like an oversize variation on the ubiquitous flag lapel pin. Everything is better, anything is acceptable if it has a hint of Old Glory in it. Scott wore a mask in service to his country, to announce he’s part of a team. It is an extension of the legislative uniform. Scott is not a mere senator making a decision to cover his nose and mouth; he’s a patriot.
It was both reassuring and exasperating to see so many senators, along with significant numbers of their staff, wear a face mask as they went about the business of, well, not really governing, but talking about governing. They acknowledge the dangers the country faces. Yet, in a routine that has become familiar, dyspeptic committee members were leaning into microphones and fretting about how they had so much to cover in their limited time.
The masks were a grim reference to the state of affairs for the foreseeable future. To see how easily the masks have become part of each man’s public messaging is a reminder of how quickly politics can adapt and become business as usual.