This is a yarn about a cloth, and what this cloth’s unraveling means to the fabric of our political lives.
Our tale begins in the men’s department of a Washington area department store where, while browsing the socks last weekend, I bumped into Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader. The courtly Mississippi Republican was casually dressed but natty as ever. He is enjoying his post-Senate life as a lobbyist, but he was sad about a recent development: The Senate had just killed Seersucker Thursday.
Lott created Seersucker Thursday in the ’90s, encouraging senators of both parties to mark the beginning of summer by wearing the pajama-like cotton, popular in the South.
As many as 30 senators once donned the striped fabric — from Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, from Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar to Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum. Often, they’d go together to the dairy lobby’s ice cream social, also held on the third Thursday in June.
Seersucker Thursday would have been on June 21, but on the evening before, the Senate cloakroom’s staff notified members that the custom was being discontinued. Lott’s former colleagues thought it would be politically unwise to be seen doing something frivolous when there’s so much conflict over major issues.
I agree that seersucker is not weighty. When I wear my seersucker suit and powdered white bucks (only between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and typically with a bow tie), perfect strangers have at times greeted me as “Professor” or “Poindexter.”
But those who canceled Seersucker Thursday have got it exactly backward: Our leaders can’t agree on important things because they’re missing this kind of social lubricant. “Some say you don’t want to make it look like the Senate’s being jovial with all these serious things going on,” Lott told me. “My view is you can’t get serious things done because you don’t have events where you can enjoy each other’s company.”
For much of our history, lawmakers lived in Washington for uninterrupted weeks at a time. Democrats and Republicans moved their families to Washington and socialized at card games or Georgetown salons. These interactions made rivals less likely to demonize each other in their official business and more likely to reach agreement. “It’s harder to give somebody a real hard time when you were out with them and their spouse the night before,” Lott reasons.
Now lawmakers disparage such clubby ways. They’ve given themselves virtually unlimited travel allowances, so they can leave their families in their home states and fly to Washington for three-day workweeks that leave no time to create personal bonds. It’s no coincidence that this change brought along with it stalemate and division over the nation’s wars and finances.
Lott recalls that when he came to Capitol Hill as a staffer in the 1960s, his job was “to light the cigars and mix the cheap bourbon” at lawmakers’ bipartisan card games. Now, he laments, “they don’t really know each other the way we did. They don’t spend much time up here, their families aren’t here, and there aren’t many opportunities to get together.”
Lott is a throwback, for better (his dealmaking abilities led to the balanced-budget agreement and welfare reform of the 1990s) and for worse (his praise for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential run cost him his leadership job). With Seersucker Thursday (as with his Singing Senators and his unsuccessful attempt to get colleagues to wear kilts on Tartan Tuesday), he was trying to re-create the social interactions of yore.
Even some of today’s fiercest ideologues agree about the need for more camaraderie. “There is potentially much to be gained by participating in these traditions that can help forge friendships in the Senate,” Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a tea party Republican, told me.
And so Lee earned his stripes: Like a few others, he ignored the memo, and on Thursday he wore seersucker, white bucks and a pink tie. Even an ardent foe of socialism knows the importance of socializing.