In Slate, Julia Feisenthal tries heroically to crack the code of Rick Santorum’s sweater vest. She’s convinced it must mean something — the problem is, she can’t settle on a single meaning. The polysemiotic garment, Feisenthal writes, “lies at the intersection of practicality…and frivolity… The look is both boyish and grandfatherly, sporty and fusty, conservative and eccentric, old-fashioned and hip.”
She seems to miss the point that it’s just such a kaleidoscopic mixture of messages that every presidential candidate should strive to project. No one hoping to corral a majority in a country so large and diverse as the United States could get away with being so easily reducible as, say, a Smurf. Clinton juxtaposed his Ivy League credentials and his twang, as W did his. Obama swathes his blackness in Burberry. Sarah Palin was no more likely to go without her Naughty Monkey peep-toed pumps than her glasses. If Herman Cain had had vision enough to combine that ten-gallon hat of his with Earth Shoes, America might have put him in office and voted funds for a harem.
In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat reviews Santorum’s advantages over Mitt Romney in the grab for rust-belt voters. For one thing, Santorum has no Santorumcare program to live down. Also, he has a “populist tinge” that will allow him to “play the same anti-Bain, anti-rich-guy, blue-collar card…but subtly, implicitly, in ways that don’t make him sound like he belongs in Occupy Wall Street instead of the Republican primary.” Here, Santorum can let the sweater vest do the talking. At once neat and hokey, it’s socially conservative in a small-town dorkish way — less Joe Six-Pack than Joe Who Tops out at Two and Calls a Cab. For the electorate, the vest promises in a stage whisper: “UNLIKE SARAH PALIN, WEARER WILL NOT ABANDON POLITICAL AMBITIONS FOR A TV CAREER.”
For Santorum, reverse-chic may equal protective coloring. More than any presidential candidate since John Kerry, he has ties to Europe — yes, Europe, land of the despised Euroweenies, and of all things dark and socialistical. His father, Aldo, was born in Riva del Garda, Italy. Santorum has visited the old family homestead numerous times. His Italian relatives are close enough to him to feel baffled by his politics. Most are, in the words of cousin-by-marriage Maria Malacame Santorum, “red communists.” No rival has tried very hard to taint him with guilt by association, but that’s not to say none would if such a thing seemed possible. True, Santorum’s voting record tends to preclude any such smear, but the vest helps. Counter-revolutionary, anti-bella figura, it enables Santorum to renounce his heritage as completely as Joe Lieberman could do by growing a Cossack’s forelock.
A few political figures have become synonymous with their personal affectations. Lincoln and Castro had their beards; Hitler, his mustache; Mao and Nehru their signature jackets; Moshe Dayan, his eye patch. But all of these characters were flamboyant enough in their own rights to invest these dress or grooming quirks with some transcendant meaning. Santorum’s sweater vest has come to serve as a kind of patsy or body double, absorbing the flack due its low-key wearer. Both Bill Maher and David Letterman have knocked Santorum for his opposition to gay rights, but neither’s been able to stay on message without pausing to acknowledge the vest. The mention cost both monologues vital momentum.
Despite his unassuming airs, Santorum is a man of polarizing views. He has said he will threaten Iran with military force. He asked Iowa voters rhetorically, “If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” Sure enough, this stuff gets its share of coverage. But the coverage has to jockey for space with items like “Santorum’s Sweater Vest Slammed by Scarlett Johannson” and “Bemidji Woollen Mills Gets Boost from Santorum’s Sweater Vests.” The faintly ridiculous is deflecting attention from the truly radical. And if Santorum does win, well, can there be any doubt how Garry Trudeau will draw him? That vest just won’t have the same bite as Quayle’s feather or Clinton’s waffle, will it?
Wool my eye. Those vests are fig leaves made of Kevlar.