White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was wearing pearls with an Army jacket. This image was definitely jarring, but it was not surprising given the Trump administration’s history of military chic — from a first lady in a bomber jacket and stilettos, to a first son-in-law who paired a flak jacket with a schoolboy’s navy blazer.
Sanders was dressed in camo and pearls because of President Trump’s date with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, during a planned visit to the demilitarized zone. Her borrowed, too-big jacket, with a Ranger patch, was simply about keeping warm, she said later. “It belonged to one of the Army Rangers on the helicopter we were flying on,” Sanders explained in an email. “It was really cold and I didn’t have a jacket with me so he loaned me his. He was incredibly nice to do it.”
The trip to the DMZ was called off because of fog. But as Sanders stood with the traveling press pool explaining the decision, she told reporters “it’s important to note the historic nature of what this would have been.”
Why? Because in mythmaking, the idea is just as important as the act — perhaps even more so.
As Sanders stood swaddled in the Army jacket, one could just make out her familiar strand of pearls. Camo and pearls — war and grace, chaos and civility — is the sort of opposites-attract pairing that would be at home in a fashion shoot in which a concept is burnished and refined until it presents a mood or an emotion wholly detached from any facts. It’s a visual storytelling technique that is not unique to fashion, although Seventh Avenue does it especially well. But the political machine is equally adept at selling a heightened or contorted reality. Washington attaches Hollywood swagger and soft-focus bravado to the terrible business of war. Nonprofit do-gooders inject romantic optimism into the bureaucratic grind of diplomacy. Political campaigns use the drumbeat of flag-waving patriotism to drown out the egocentric nature of lawmakers. Chest-thumping bombast is cast as artful negotiation.
If there is one person in the Trump administration who has a particularly keen awareness of the power of visuals, it’s Sanders, who spends a significant portion of her workday on TV, standing at a podium, weaving a fantastical tapestry of Trump’s design. She is typically wearing a brightly colored dress with distracting sleeves that exudes youthful effervescence rather than sophistication or authority. But this is not to say that Sanders is not a savvy wielder of clout. Instead, she is making it clear that she is not one of those sleeveless-sheath-wearing power women of the secular Establishment. She is something else. As she regularly reminds the press corps and the broader TV audience, she is the mother of a brood of children who wreck such havoc in her home that this turmoil-filled White House is a Zenlike yoga retreat by comparison. She does not look to the president for moral leadership, she has said; she looks to God. She does not spin a story in clipped sound bites. She weaves a tale with a homey drawl.
Sanders accessorizes her ensembles with a signature strand of prim pearls, sensible block heels . . . and dramatic eyelashes. Her face is made up for an HD television close-up, because no matter how homespun her stories, how safely eccentric her costumes or how dubious her message, everything goes down easier with a little Hollywood gloss. Mythmaking is in the details — and the eyelashes.
The Army Ranger offered Sanders a gesture of kindness. Perhaps it would be rude to refuse it. But slipping on military anything that does not belong to you, is a decision to be made cautiously and deliberately, particularly when cameras are present and everything from one’s words to one’s gestures are part of an official message. It’s one thing to run around in one of fashion’s many military-inspired jackets —it’s a look, an attitude, a provocative or artful gesture. But the real thing brings with it a weight of some significance. It is official. It is earned. It comes with high expectations.
As Sanders stands in her borrowed camo, she is surrounded by men and women in civilian clothes: blazers, ties, dress pants. In the background, there are armed members of the military in uniform. She is the only person dressed as this odd hybrid: Part Junior League volunteer. Part warrior. Half press secretary, half storyteller. She has cloaked herself as if something is about to happen for which she must take action — something dangerous, something challenging, something historic. The reality, however, is that nothing is happening. And for the most mundane reason: fog. But crummy weather does not make a good story.