On January 3, 2016, several candidates criss-crossed the small state of New Hampshire in an effort to gain enough supporters to win the crucial early February primary. These men and women discussed issues that were important to them, their party, and (from their perspective) the entire country. What this select group of Americans said that day may have convinced some to change their support from one candidate to another. Perhaps those new converts may then have persuaded others to vote for their new favorite. It is entirely possible that this day might have been seen by future historians as one that changed American history. After all, those standing before the various crowds that day were seeking the most powerful job in the world – the presidency of the United States. Yet, in this increasingly absurd election season, it is unlikely that anything said that Sunday will be remembered. Instead, the most important event of that day was Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida deciding to wear a pair of nice boots. In this edition of the History Rhyme, we will briefly look at the great distraction of “boot-gate” that followed and then at the evolution of what voters (especially Republican ones) see as the preferred appearance for their leader. We will then look back into twentieth century presidential history to see how our perceptions of the person holding such an important office have changed.
In a crowded presidential field (especially one that includes billionaire businessman Donald Trump), gaining the attention of the public can be difficult. This can be especially frustrating if you are someone who is struggling in the polls despite tremendous name recognition, numerous endorsements, and a huge campaign war chest. Such a man is former Florida governor Jeb Bush who, despite all his advantages, has fallen from “the clear Republican presidential frontrunner” at the end of 2014 to almost a political afterthought now. So, when Senator Rubio’s heeled boots were the object of ridicule on Twitter and by fellow Republican candidates such as Tennessee Senator Rand Paul and by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Governor Bush’s supporters (via the Right To Rise political action committee) saw their chance to attack the man who was Bush’s main rival for the “establishment” Republican vote. What ensued was one of the more creative and biting uses of satire I have seen in a while – a karaoke-style music video titled “Boots.” In the ad, which was available mainly via YouTube, attacks inconsistencies in Senator Rubio’s positions on various issues by showing someone dancing in boots similar to those of “young Marco” as a woman sings “these boots were made for flipping.” Although such a tactic does not seem to have helped Governor Bush much in New Hampshire polls, it has forced Senator Rubio to endure ribbing about his boots when he is a guest on shows like the Tonight Show.
Even though the political ad and the jokes by people like Jimmy Fallon have been clever and entertaining, we and future historians must ask: “what does this all mean?” Should we shake our heads at the absurdity of one man’s footwear becoming ever-so-briefly the most important political story in our 24-hour news cycle? What was wrong with a man wearing a pair of black boots with a heel? In a speech only a few days after his boots become so notorious, Senator Rubio expressed a view that is likely shared by those who shake their heads at our times when he said:
“Let me get this right. ISIS is cutting people’s heads off, setting people on fire in cages, Saudi Arabia and Iran of the verge of a war, the Chinese are landing airplanes on islands that they built and say belong to them in what are international waters and in some ways territorial waters, our economy is flat-lined, the stock market is falling apart, but boy are we getting a log of coverage about a pair of boots. This is craziness. People, have they lost their minds?”
Have we lost our minds? Is such interest in a candidates footwear something peculiarly odd to our modern world? For anyone who has followed this blog, this should seem like a great time to look back and see what a little perspective tells us about our interest in Rubio’s shoes.
Why did the image of a well-dressed, attractive man running for president cause such rancor in the conservative world? Is it that he is wearing boots? Is it that the boots have a heel? Is it because he was dressed nicely? That all depends on the eye of the beholder. As David Levy notes in his article “Dress Code for Men In Politics,” there are several potential audiences for a candidate who needs to be wearing the correct attire for that situation. However, when a candidate’s appearance is taken out of context (as in the case we are discussing), the specter of a well-known American actor from the twentieth century molds the conservative view of how a man running for president should look. No, that person is not Ronald Reagan. He was merely a reflection of the image of rugged American masculinity that was the famous American actor John Wayne. If you are old enough to remember the “Duke,” you probably have an image of him wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. As Adam Howard noted in a January 20, 2016 story “Why John Wayne Remains An Icon of the Right,” the persona of this famous actor:
“… has come to represent so many facets of the American aesthetic that conservative voters find appealing. He is fondly remembered by fans as a “man’s man,” a hyper-masculine figure whose characters often had a contempt for due process, a kind of grim embrace of isolationism, a staunch preference for established gender roles, and some profound cultural insensitivity (to put it kindly) when it came to issues of race.”
The short answer to why Marco Rubio faced such ribbing for his boots is that he did not pass the “Duke” test. He did not fit the popular image of John Wayne and thus (by extension) did not meet the image of the politician who best co-opted the John Wayne look – Ronald Reagan.
My grandfather John was an age-mate to both John Wayne and Ronald Reagan. His appearance and theirs are linked in my memory. My grandfather was an intelligent yet uneducated working man (entered the coal mines at age 12) who loved reading Louis L’Amour novels, wearing cowboy boots, fishing, and smoking Marlboros. So, regardless of my political leanings, I can relate to why such an image would appeal to voters who are looking for traditional values in a complicated world. It also helps me to understand why Republican candidates are often seen across Iowa these days with rolled up sleeves, flannel shirts, and occasionally sporting orange hunting gear. Sometimes these efforts help a candidate connect with the people. Sometimes it makes the candidate a target for derision. Yet, this attempt to dress down to the common denominator was not always required for political success. Richard Nixon was more popular than our post-Watergate brains can appreciate and he was anything but casual. Prior to then, being well-dressed and having good shoes was not a hindrance for any aspiring candidate. Harry Truman may have been erasable and perhaps not always the best judge of when to keep his opinions to himself, but he was an impeccably well-dressed and had an amazing shoe collection. Yet, despite his stylish wardrobe, President Truman was not perceived as an elitist.
We are in a world where candidates for president are judged on many aspects – personality, policy, personal history, their voice, and their appearance. While some of these qualities are timeless (e.g. controversy is bad and likability is good), others can vary over time. In this current political season, there are so many candidates with very similar positions and thus any minor distinctions can make a huge difference. So, it is not surprising that Marco Rubio’s opponents jumped at the chance to mock him for wearing a pair of boots that were not within the current standard for Republican masculinity. He was no John Wayne. However, as we know from our past, such an image has not always been so powerful. Perhaps, as those who remember the Duke and Ronald Reagan are replaced by a new generation of Americans who like Senator Rubio’s choice of footwear, the definition of acceptable attire will change. Only time will tell.