When it comes to aesthetics and public perception, the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination love nothing better than red ties, blue ties, boxy suits, tiny American-flag pins and regular invocations of Reagan, Reagan, Reagan. At the start of the first prime-time debate of this election season, the 10 top-polling candidates stood on stage — awkwardly, uncomfortably — for a group photo. It was a historic moment, in front of a record-setting TV audience, and all 10 looked as if they were posing for an advertisement for a buy-one, get-one-free men’s clothier. Not one was dressed with discernible sharpness or elegance. Their suits fit — sort of. It was a low bar, barely cleared. None looked to be in a first-name relationship with an expert tailor. Everyone looked the same: middling and banal. And that’s not Reaganesque, at all.
Folks undoubtedly recall the attention the public paid to Nancy Reagan’s attire and her devotion to the great American designer James Galanos. But Ronald Reagan was also interested in style. He was a man who took care with his appearance, not out of grudging duty but, reportedly, with a sense of pleasure.
The political historian Theodore H. White was quoted in a 1981 article in the New York Times as noting that Reagan took clothes seriously. In fact, he dressed with such flair, as both a candidate and as commander in chief, that the media began to speculate on how much influence he would have on men’s attire in general.
”Two weeks before the election,” White said, ”Ronald Reagan showed up in a new suit, a brown suit with a tint of red to it, and you wish you had the guts to wear it yourself.”
For the 1981 inauguration, Reagan wore a stroller suit instead of a business suit. “A what?” you ask. A stroller suit is worn for daytime, semi-formal occasions. Essentially it is a black coat typically paired with gray trousers and waistcoat, as well as a dress shirt with French cuffs. It is traditional and elegant; it oozes glamour and is definitely not the sort of garb one wears if aiming to define oneself as Everyman. Reagan’s 1981 inaugural balls were white-tie. During his administration, he wore tan suits and plaid sports jackets, cowboy hats, leather jackets and riding boots. And he looked good.
But on Thursday night, there was Mike Huckabee repeating Reagan’s name over and over like a spiritual incantation, all the while waving his arms around to reveal French cuffs that looked as if they were attached to a shirt made for someone with the wing span of LeBron James. Chris Christie chose a tie that was such a pale shade of blue that it almost disappeared into the white expanse of his shirt, making him look, from certain angles, as if he wasn’t wearing a tie at all. Ted Cruz’s tie was so long he could practically have tucked it into his belt. Trousers puddled at ankles. Previously pale faces had an artificial orange glow. Curls stood at attention. Comb-overs distracted.
The men wore the basic uniform of power — the business suit — but given its cookie-cutter slouchiness, all they managed to convey was braying, WrestleMania powerlessness.
Most of the candidates chose red ties — patriotic, presidential, cliché — but appeared to have given little thought to whether they actually looked dignified, authoritative or even attractive in red. In particular, for Donald Trump, flushed with bravado and indignation and with a perma-pout on his face, the fiery hue of his tie only emphasized his flame-throwing rhetorical style. (But perhaps that was the point.)
Style matters. And when there are 10 prime-time Republican candidates — plus seven more trying to clamber up the polls — style can speak eloquently and abundantly when your actual air time is limited.
In a 2011 Wall Street Journal essay marking what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday, Robert McFarlane, who served as his national security adviser, attributed the former president’s success to three characteristics: a commitment to American values, political courage and, most relevant in this context, the ability to inspire confidence and earn public support. Reagan’s powers of persuasion earned him the nickname “the great communicator.” He was able to convey an idea, a mood, an indefinable something. He did so with words and gestures but also with his style.
Reagan marked the orderly — and exceptional — transfer of power with sparkling, myth-making formality. He did the business of day-to-day governing in a power suit, but one that was not an uninspired uniform. His casual wear was polished, precise and distinctive.
The Republican candidates’ idolatry of Reagan is so extreme that it has inspired a drinking game. But style is the one aspect of his messaging skills that they not only ignore but seem to actively disdain.