Commentary: Why All the Fuss About Obama's Tan Suit?

Keith Boykin

Commentary: Why All the Fuss About Obama's Tan Suit?

Twitter and news media outlets critique the president's latest fashion choice.

Published August 29, 2014

I was lying in bed Thursday afternoon when I received a news alert from CNN that President Obama would speak to the nation at 4 p.m. I clicked on the White House website on my iPhone and watched as the president walked into the briefing room in an ill-fitting tan suit that looked quite out of character for the usually stylish Obama.

On the small phone screen, I couldn't tell if the problem was the phone or the suit, so I turned on the television to watch the press conference in HD. The suit was a slightly different color on TV but something was still oddly unattractive. Was it the fit, the color, the tie, or a combination of the above? I turned to Twitter to see if anyone else had noticed the problem and found the topic was already trending. I added my two cents: "I just can't get past President Obama's tan suit," I tweeted.

A few minutes later, I posted another tweet. "The problem with the tan suit is not the color, it's the fit," I wrote. "Obama's worn light colors before and looked fine."

If all this information seems trivial, it is. Thursday was my birthday, and, unfortunately, I was lying in bed sick all day. My post was not meant to be taken too seriously, but it drew some serious reactions.

One person told me to "choose another topic" because the president is "under constant attack!" Another criticized me as an African-American journalist "using twitter to punch POTUS." A third tweeted: "And you really see yourself as a 'reporter?' You are delusional if you do." Still another critic jumped in: "Wardrobe critiques are generally reserved 4 women. So clearly this is an attempt 2 strip him of his manhood." Huh?

It didn't stop with Twitter. The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC News, and even the fact-checking website Politifact all reported on this not so pressing issue by the end of the day. Why all the fuss about a suit?

Times fashion reporter Vanessa Friedman offers three reasons for the "suitgate" controversy. First, she says Obama's suit choice challenged the conservative status quo in Washington. I agree with her on this. I lived in Washington for eight years, and I hated seeing men wearing the same boring uniform everyday. Official Washington is a very "serious" place, so officials in Washington learn to dress very seriously. That's one reason I live in New York.

Second, Friedman argues, Obama's suit was a "wishy-washy color," which she called "a particularly odd choice for a discussion of wishy-washy military policy." I don't entirely agree. Yes, a tan suit doesn't exactly project power in the minds of the public, but what's needed to resolve complex issues in Syria and Ukraine is finesse, not just power. When President Bush walked across an aircraft carrier in his ridiculous "mission accomplished" jumpsuit, it wasn't wishy-washy, but it also lacked much needed finesse.

Finally, Friedman pointed to Obama's flip flop from a Vanity Fair interview, where the president told journalist Michael Lewis, "I wear only gray or blue suits" because "I have too many other decisions to make." The tan suit may mark a change, but I find it hard to believe people on Twitter were reacting to a two-year-old pre-election interview that nobody even remembered until someone looked it up after yesterday's press conference.

I would offer two other reasons for the hubbub.

1. Part of the "suitgate" controversy may stem from Obama's own sartorial prowess. Yes, he's worn the dad jeans before and his casual look isn't always stylish, but the man has been virtually flawless in a business suit. Thursday may have been the first time I've ever seen him not look good in a suit.

2. Maybe we crave some light news after a horrible summer. This summer has been tragic. We've seen a passenger plane shot down, the Ebola virus spreading across Africa, war in Gaza, Syria and Ukraine, African-American men and boys being killed by cops, protests in the streets of Ferguson, and police in riot gear firing rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators. After all that, a moment of levity might be in order.

Criticizing the president's suit choice is not an attack on his administration. We need not believe the president is perfect in order to support him. Yes, I know other presidents, including President Obama, have worn tannish suits before. Obama even rocked a tan suit to Easter service this year. But Obama wore it better back then. The Easter suit fit him well. He wore a crisp white shirt, a sharp tie, and a pocket square to complement the look. Thursday's suit just didn't work as well.

Nevertheless, I hope the criticism doesn't stop the president from following his instincts in fashion, or in foreign policy. Washington, D.C., fashion, like Washington politics, needs to be shaken up.

So, relax, folks. Obama is under attack, but not because of his tan suit. Now let's all take a deep breath and enjoy the long holiday weekend before we come back on Tuesday and start fighting again.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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