Mark Twain wrote that “clothes make the man.”
Sometimes, clothes make the news.
Which is precisely what happened on Capitol Hill Thursday.Anyone who’s covered Congress knows that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) periodically ribs members of the Capitol press corps about their wardrobe. It could be their shoes. A jacket. A tie.
And I fell victim to Boehner’s fashion police Thursday.
Journalists are notorious for being sartorial disasters. Especially here in Washington. And hobos in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” dress better than some of the reporters who cover Congress. I’ve seen journalists wandering around the Capitol in November wearing seersucker suits. Others don ties with a print that looks like the zebra from Fruit Stripe Gum. Some seemingly insist on donning thick, tweed jackets for 96 degree days in July.
I wear a suit or at least a jacket and tie almost every day I’m at the Capitol. First, it’s a credibility thing. If you’re dealing with lawmakers and Washington’s power elite, dressing for success helps. Good tailoring lets everyone know you know what you’re doing. Even if you don’t.
That may sound a bit like spin. But after all, this is Washington.
Secondly, the House requires coats and ties for men entering the Speaker’s Lobby, the long, ornate hallway behind the House chamber. I spend a good bit of my day there chatting up lawmakers when Congress is in session.
I’m not someone who is blessed with a fashion eye. But I know basic colors that go together. As a child, my parents bought me Garanimals. It’s clothing line for children with a small tag attached to each item. Every tag featured a different animal. The idea was to pair the tags so kids could coordinate their own outfits. In other words, if you had a shirt with a giraffe, look to match it with trousers bearing a giraffe.
I’ve often wished there was an adult version of Garanimals. So that’s why I stick to putting basic colors together. Kind of like what I did on Thursday before Boehner accused me of a wardrobe malfunction.
My getup: a black and white hounds tooth jacket, a black short, a black tie and black pants. I finished everything off with a black pocket square.
In fact, when I got dressed Thursday morning, I wondered if Boehner might call me out during his weekly press conference later that day. After all, when I wore almost the same combo back in February, Boehner spotted me near the House floor, pointed at me and scrunched up his nose. I asked what was wrong. “Too metrosexual,” Boehner replied.
But little did I know Boehner would target me for a fashion emergency Thursday.
Before his media briefing, Boehner spied me in the corridor outside the House Radio-TV Gallery. He shook his head in disgust at my threads. He said he didn’t like the black shirt. I laughed. But little did I know that the Minority Leader wasn’t done.
A phalanx of reporters rubbered into the gallery to hear from Boehner. Just moments before, many of the journalists were downstairs listening to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) accuse the CIA of lying to Congress about interrogation tactics. The scribes were assembled to hear what the Minority Leader might say about Pelosi’s charges.
But Boehner surprised everyone when he took the lectern. Instead of immediately putting the Speaker in his crosshairs, the leader focused on me.
“Good morning everyone. If you haven’t seen Pergram’s outfit…” Boehner started, staring at me in the front row. “For someone born in the 8th district of Ohio, you don’t look like it.”
That prompted my former FOX colleague and Congressional Quarterly reporter Molly Hooper to jump into the fray.
“What district does he look like he’s from then?” Hooper inquired.
Boehner didn’t respond. But according to the blog FishbowlDC (which wrote about the incident), I apparently looked like someone from a Congressional district in New York or New Jersey. FishbowlDC described the outfit as “rocking Gotti-chic” and later called it a “mobster ensemble.”
For the record, I’m not from Congressional districts represented by Reps. Albio Sires (D-NJ) or Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). I’m a native of Boehner’s Congressional district in Ohio.
I’ve known Boehner since I was in high school and he was in the state legislature. I covered his first Congressional race when I was in college. So I’m familiar with what people wear in the mostly rural, southwest Ohio district that hugs the Indiana border.
I told the leader he apparently didn’t see me earlier in the week, wearing one of my many John Deere ball caps. Standard 8th Congressional district couture for the farms and dairies there. And a long way from “Gotti-chic.”
Had I been more nimble on my feet, I might have jokingly challenged the leader that his perpetually bronze skin tone doesn’t look like someone who represents the 8th district of Ohio. After all, President Obama joked last weekend at the White House Correspondents Dinner that Boehner’s George Hamilton-esque skin made the leader “a person of color, although not a color that appears in the natural world.”
Dozens of FOX producers were watching Boehner’s briefing on a live feed going back to our Washington, DC bureau.
“What in the world are you wearing?” asked one. After I explained, State
Department Correspondent James Rosen suggested that I should expect this type of treatment from lawmakers if I decide to dress “like a Dick Tracy villain.”
I wonder which villain I reminded Rosen of?
The Brow? Pruneface? Big Boy Caprice?
Over the years, I’ve heard the jocular Boehner chide Congressional Quarterly’s Alan Ota about his haircut. Or tell Politico’s Patrick O’Connor to polish his shoes. But this incident scored more hype than any of Boehner’s other fashion tips. The blog FamousDC wrote that “John Boehner crushed Fox News’ Man in Black Chad Pergram.”
So Boehner will meet the press again next week. I expect he’ll don a standard grey suit adorned with a green or orange tie. And I’m contemplating what I might wear.
With the weather warming up, I might be inclined to come in beachwear and sandals, perhaps representing the district of Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI).
If I dressed in hip waders, I could look like I was from the at-large district of Rep. Don Young (R-AK). Flooding’s inundated Alaska.
If I wore an orange jumpsuit and goggles, I could look like a newly-released prisoner from Guantanamo Bay. Some here on Capitol Hill fear the detainees could soon be bound for ANY Congressional district.
But I’m leaning toward my John Deere hat (from Bud Roberts Motors, I might add), a yellow flannel shirt, jeans and some old boots. I might not even shave. Togs that are common for Ohio’s 8th Congressional district.
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) said that all politics is local. And I don’t want people back home to think I’m out of touch.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.