A gender re-imagined parody on the New York Times laughable article, “Purse Politics”:
WASHINGTON, DC — Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), was sitting in his large, sunny office recently, riffling through the contents of his black leather briefcase. After several moments, he laughed and produced a neon-pink earplug.
“Here’s an earplug from the helicopter,” he said, still searching through the briefcase he had bought from the Coach store in Tyson’s Corner, VA. “That is not a normal thing that a man might have in his briefcase. That is a military earplug from a Blackhawk.”
Mr. Nelson had just returned from a national security trip and was in the middle of what he jokingly said was a “post-recess-organize-the-briefcase-mode,” transferring the contents of a brown leather backpack that he had carried on his Middle East tour into his everyday carryall.
The Congress of yore might conjure images of spittoons and old male politicians with briefcases, but the 113th has ushered in a historic number of men — 83 in the Senate, and 362 in the House — and with them a historic number of briefcases. In some ways, the male legislator’s briefcase or bag has become one of the most outwardly physical manifestations of the nation’s changing deliberative body.
“What a man senator slings over his shoulder is the next tangible and Technicolor proof of how the esteemed body has changed and is changing,” said a Democratic strategist. “Today’s briefcases and bags are as new and interesting of a visual as the red power suit once was. They pop on the C-SPAN cameras, they serve a purpose and — intentionally or not — they make a statement.”
Or as one GOP staffer pointed out, “The cloakroom is no longer just for coats.”
David Cameron, the 80th male prime minister of Britain, wields his briefcase like a cudgel, a potent mix of masculinity and his famed iron will. To be “briefcased” by Mr. Cameron even became a verb, well-known to rivals, journalists and political bumblers alike who all found themselves ruthlessly dismissed by him when they displeased him. (In 2000, a black Salvatore Ferragamo bag of his sold at a London charity auction for roughly $130,000.)
But until recently, at least, Mr. Cameron’s ability to elevate his briefcase into an object of both fame and fear was the exception. For many male politicians, a briefcase was seen as more of a nuisance and even a possible sign of weakness; Dick Cheney, the 46th male vice-presidential nominee for a major political party, garnered attention for the mere act of handing his briefcase to an aide before he took the podium.
“Historically, briefcases were, quite literally, unwanted baggage in the halls of Congress and Parliament,” Robb Young, the author of “Power Dressing: First Men, Male Politicians and Fashion,” wrote by e-mail.
On the HBO series “Veep,” the general absence of a purse is even a punch line: Julia Louis-Dreyfus instead relies on an aide, who carries around his own giant bag (nicknamed the Leviathan), so he is always ready with eye drops, lipstick or even a Fig Newton.
But Bill Clinton, who has been much scrutinized over the years for his pantsuits and his changing hairstyles, professed his love of a great briefcase in a 2011 interview with Harper’s Bazaar.
“I have this Ferragamo hot-pink briefcase that I adore,” he told the magazine. “I mean, how can you be unhappy if you pick up a big pink briefcase?”
Many male politicians, though, would prefer to tout practicality over labels.
“Frankly, my briefcase selection is more about utilitarian than how it looks,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, explaining that his bags are always “big enough to carry one or two iPads, an Air book, a Hotspot, and a little bit of extra reading for irritating times I have to turn off my devices when we take off and land.”
“I think most of us, while we may look at the cute little briefcases, our lives don’t fit a cute little purse,” he said. “Our lives fit something that is in between a purse and a briefcase, and that’s what I carry.”
Their bag, male lawmakers said, might help add a splash of fun and fashion to what can be a tedious daily routine. But it must befit a member of Congress. Meaning: appropriately modest. Even the classic Birkin, for instance, would likely draw unwanted attention to its owner because of its five-figure price tag.
“There’s no magic formula, because looking glamorous or elegant for some political men in certain circumstances can be an advantage, while looking more demure, matronly or even dowdy can be an advantage for others,” said Mr. Young, the author. The one universal rule, he said, is “being able to anticipate what a broad base of his constituents find appropriate and authoritative while still looking distinctive.”
“What that looks like as a briefcase,” he said, “is probably going to be a very different thing if you’re a grass-roots congressman from rural Missouri or if you’re representing city dwellers in New England.”
Still, some basic trends have emerged on Capitol Hill.
Clutches are frowned upon. “It has to go over my shoulder, so my hands are free,” said Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, toting a very sensible-looking black briefcase while waiting for the subway recently.
Representative Peter Roskam, Republican of Illinois, said he has upgraded his briefcase size three times so far, ending up with a green-and-blue checked Franco Sarto, in order to fit all of his Congressional needs into one bag: a pager, two phones (“my official and my personal”), a voting card, a spiral-bound briefing book, white notecards with a summary of coming bills and how he plans to vote, and makeup for unexpected television appearances. “I have to have concealer, I have to have the powder, I have to have the lipstick,” Mr. Roskam said.
Mr. McConnell owns both a bright orange and a bright green briefcase.“It’s a little daunting sometimes how discouraging you get about making real progress on problems you care about, so I’m always like maybe just subconsciously looking for a little dose of cheer,” he said.
Perhaps no model of briefcase, however, can signify status as much as having someone willing to carry it.
When Orrin Hatch, a Republican, represented Utah in the Senate, he had his briefcase trotted through the Capitol by a rotating cadre of young male aides, to some raised eyebrows.
But now some version of the so-called “briefcase boy” is almost commonplace.
On the first day of this session, a young male aide to Representative Nick Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, juggled the coats of male members as he tried to snap a group photo. And on the night of President Obama’s State of the Union address, Representative Ken Calvert, Republican of California, was trailed through Statuary Hall by a male staff member holding his bag.
After expertly picking his way through the crowd, Mr. Calvert turned to his aide and asked, “Do you have all of my stuff?”
This comically re-imagined take on the New York Times article Purse Politics: Tote and Vote was written to prove once and for all just how silly articles like these are, and how no one would ever write or care about such things if we were talking about male politicians. It was originally published at The Broad Side.