Monday, December 19, 2005

Fashion Faux -Pas

Blanco and Brownie: fashion deities of Hurricane Katrina

I was reading the Des Moines Register today (insert laughter) and I noticed a column by syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts about Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and the fashion concerns on the governor’s mind and that of her PR staff during and immediately after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

It turns out Blanco and her staff were more concerned with dressing so as to appear like she was out in the streets with the common man trying to help the recovery, rather than actually going out in the streets and trying to help the recovery. Blanco, a democrat, is the second high level official to fall victim to such criticism.

Lifted from Pitts' column is the following excerpt: ''Please put [Blanco] in casual clothes, a baseball cap, etc.,'' wrote Liz Mangham, a PR consultant to the governor on Sept. 2, four days after the storm. ``She needs to visit a shelter in prime time and talk tough, but hug some folks and be sensitive.''

If you’ll recall, former FEMA director Michael Brown was heavily chastised after newspapers printed a series of emails where Brown was discussing fashion concerns and his dinner plans, while hundreds of thousands of hurricane survivors endured horrible conditions at the Superdome, Convention Center and elsewhere.

That story revealed what would have made the list of Top Ten hilarious moments in government correspondence if it were not for the gravity of the situation - when FEMA regional director Marty Bahamonde responded to an email from Brown’s secretary about Brownie needing more time for his dinner plans. Bahamonde had this little gem, which still brings a Mona Lisa smile to my face:

“OH MY GOD!!!!!!!! No won't go any further, too easy of a target. Just tell her that I just ate an MRE and crapped in the hallway of the Superdome along with 30,000 other close friends so I understand her concern about busy restaurants. Maybe tonight I will have time to move my pebbles on the parking garage floor so they don't stab me in the back while I try to sleep.”

Pitts makes some very good (albeit rather obvious) points about the superficiality evident from these demonstrations, where those in charge of disaster recovery were more focused on the appearance of progress than actual progress. (Cough, cough. Iraq. Cough)

He highlights something bright Americans know instinctively – that politicians are generally full of crap and more concerned about how they look on TV than about whether they are serving the American people.

But Pitts missed something in his analysis. Recall a month or so before Hurricane Katrina, when members of Northwestern’s women’s lacrosse team visited the white house wearing flip-flop style sandals, revealing their sexy athlete feet (GASP- Jezebels!).

Recall also that this story made FRONT PAGE news on major national and regional papers. It was the topic of the day for political pundits all over the idiot-box and callers on talk radio nationwide.

If visitors to the White House wearing sandals qualifies as a front page story which lasts through several news cycles, as the Lacrosse story did, perhaps Brownie and Blanco weren’t so unwise in focusing on fashion as the public attention turned to Louisiana in the wake of the hurricane.

Don’t expect me to defend either of those jerks, because I cannot fathom a coherent response, let alone a defense, for something like Brown’s email boast that he was “a fashion God” after he made a slick TV appearance.

But weren’t Brownie and Blanco merely mirroring the majority of America in being more concerned about clothing selection than they are about liberty and justice for all?

I’d dare to wager more Des Moines residents show up at the annual American Idol tryouts than manage to make it to a D.M. city council meeting in an entire year. Sure, Law and Order and CSI have several successful spin-offs, but they can be counted on two hands. I tried to count the number of fashion shows on TV and I ran out of appendages - so I know there’s more than 21.

Let’s condemn the mammoth superficiality which would cause public officials to worry more about blouses than bodies, but let’s condemn it all around. Let’s condemn it where it begins and flourishes, which is not in politics, but in myriad aspects of our society.

If these scandalous emails had come out of a lesser disaster than Katrina, where the suffering and the publicity of the suffering was not so great, would there be such an uproar? Is it the scale of the Katrina disaster that makes Blanco’s and Brownie’s fashion focus so distasteful, or would it be just as distasteful in a minor disaster?

It’s my impression the outrage does depend on the scale.

Try running for high school student body president while wearing high-water jeans and a ratty T-shirt.

Tell your neighbors that you volunteer at a soup kitchen on the weekends, and that’s why you haven’t had time to mow the overgrown grass on your lawn.

Men, go to work in a sun dress.

Women, go to work in sweatpants and a Dallas Cowboys jersey.

Then – and only then – start talking about the importance or lack of importance in appearances.

Brownie and Blanco obviously had their priorities out of wack. But not any more than the majority of the American electorate.

America without superficiality is like Pamela Anderson without a career. I can imagine such a world when I close my eyes, but when I open them again, Baywatch is still listed in the TV guide; C-cups in sandals with the (alleged) brains of a Jessica Simpson clone still drink for free all night at the bar; and job listings still ask for applications from a “clean-cut professional.”



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