The Top 5 Best-Dressed Presidents
by Lynda Schor
 
 

Many chief executives have led the nation in battle. Always ready for ritual pomp or rustic circumstance, these 5 always dressed for success.

1. Herbert Hoover (1929-33) wore starched high-neck, low, rounded size 17 "Hoover" collars, which made him look stiff and formal to Americans caught in the Great Depression. While most women wore Hoover aprons, and most men had to have old suits darned and re-darned, Hoover brought a comfortable California crispness to the somber era. He often went fishing in a high-crowned, white-banded straw hat. He strolled the South Lawn in white buckskin shoes and carefully pressed white linen trousers, wishing he could play the Jazz Age sporting man as Warren Harding had, hitting the links in his plus fours, those light wool knickers, in pale yellow, gray, or even dove green, worn with colorful cotton, wool, or wool-blend socks that came nearly to the edge of the knickers which ended just below the knee. He liked the way sometimes a narrow slice of white calf would be revealed.

"Nothing centers me like puttering around in my garden, fooling around in the dirt," he says enthusiastically. In the garden he wears his high rubber boots, or striped bib overalls, a cotton shirt with sleeves rolled and a straw boater to protect him from the sun.

"When the chatter and jabber of external forces threaten to upset my equilibrium," he said, "I often turn back to basic relief-a slow swing on my hammock, an extended slumber sandwiched between cool Yves St. Laurent sheets and a Ralph Lauren down comforter. Achieving an inner dialogue about what is challenging the perpetual balancing act without forcing self- examination is key. Putting my mind out of my body allows clarity and insight, but, when I'm not feeling too metaphysical, preparing a big meal with close friends and throwing back a few pints of Guinness usually does the trick.

2. Harry S. Truman (1945-53) prided himself on being a snappy dresser for the days when he co-owned a haberdashery. He went wild at his vacation lair in Key West, Florida, where he was often pictured in splashy sport shirts, bright red, orange, or flowered. He may have invented the Hawaiian shirt. When his wife Bess wasn't around, Truman incensed the clothing manufacturers and the nation's fashion trendsetters by wearing bright red, yellow and green, and plaid, linen and gabardine slacks.

"I don't want to liberate intelligent women from housework," he always said. "I want to raise housework to a level worthy of intelligent women. I want to apply rational methods to the chaos of housework and earn it the respect accorded to science and business. The ideal new housewife should project, above all, self-sufficiency, self-control, and a perfectly bland façade. We'll call household drudgery 'domestic science.' The bourgeois home is a lost paradise retrievable through careful instruction-recipes, home furnishing catalogs, sex manuals."

"Like does it really matter," asks Bess, "whether we roll our table linens in parchment or not?"

"It goes beyond the parchment," says Harry. It has to do with tradition, with doing things the right way. What would the world be coming to?"

He felt comfy posing for press photographers while fishing in high rubber waders and sunglasses with fancy frames. But they had to be the right kind of waders and sunglasses.

The young aide, dressed in a suit but looking like a child, hair combed slick with Vitalis, led me through the locked door to still another locked door with a peephole in it. He pushed a button, and the peephole flipped open; eyes looked out, and the door opened. We went in, and I was again surprised. We were in a beautiful living room with fine furniture and lots of paintings on the walls. The room was large with a bar on one side. On the sofa there was a guy sitting in shirt-sleeves, smoking a cigar. I recognized Harry.

"It's been documented many times," he said, blowing a huge smoke ring, then sucking the smoke back into his lungs, a feat worthy of Houdini. "If my work doesn't look like what's going on outside my window, then I shouldn't be doing it."

To Harry, it was not enough to serve your guests pumpkin soup-you must present it in hollowed-out, hand-gilded pumpkins. It would not do to serve an Easter ham unless you baked it in a roasting pan lined with tender, young, organically-grown grass that had just been cut. When serving a casual lobster and corn dinner alfresco, he'd want it served with dozens of little bamboo brushes tied with raffia and adorned with chive so his guests might butter their corn with something pretty. He took cooking lessons, quietly implying that cooking was a kind of synecdoche for the rest of the world. He was a kitchen-sink idealist who scorned utility in the name of beauty. But his idealism extended no further than surface appearances, which makes it very American.

"Most people believe that getting things perfect takes time, and that time is money," I said, trying not to use the much-maligned phrase "class warfare."

"Uh-uh," said Harry. "It's about taste. People with good taste deserve good things."

Truman couldn't foresee that a couple of decades later a combination cookbook and sex manual would be published. Called The Joy of Sex: a Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking, with chapter headings such as "Starters," "Main Courses," and "Pickles and Sauces," it advised: "Fashion dictates armpits should be bare, but in my opinion shaving is simply ignorant vandalism. The chopping of armpit hair might be forgiven where there's no plumbing and a hot climate. This is not an argument for whiskers and moustaches, but men's facial hair doesn't have the importance of armpit tufts-women's little tufts-these are antennae, powder puffs to introduce into a room."

But I think he'd approve of this helpful advice: "Never fool about sexually with vacuum cleaners or with air-pressure gadgets. A garage tire inflator once ruptured someone's intestine when applied eighteen inches from the anus. Vacuum cleaner injuries to the penis are surprisingly common and surprisingly hard to repair."

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61) dressed like a square in his three-piece gray flannel suits. But on weekends at his farmhouse in Gettysburg, PA, Ike played the 50s granddad, turning the steaks in a he-man barbeque apron.

Four days after his inauguration, Ike was featured in a 4-page foldout for Gap denim jackets.

For a short moment in history it was stylish to have a bald dome and wear a suit. (Though that combination will become stylish again decades later.)

Around noon or later, Ike begins his day, with a glass of whiskey and water in his hand. By evening, when he starts working, he's fine-tuned pickled. We can believe when he tells us that alcohol breaks down his inhibitions and helps him work. He certainly gets a lot friendlier as he seeps through the afternoon and into the evening. He's said he loves to drink and he loves to work. It would be hard not to link his loves as twin agents-of both enhancement and escape.

Ike has always identified with animals and sought to liberate them. His father was a hunter and, according to one anecdote, killed a pet goat he had. Ike, visiting the Arensberg collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, even tried to liberate one of the marble cubes from the metal bird cage of Marcel Duchamp's "Why Not Sneeze?" As he reached into the bird cage, a guard said in a bored voice, "Don't you know you're not supposed to touch that crap?"

In one home movie, Ike jokes that he was on a corrupt missionary mission. You can believe it when you see him walking around in Tibet wearing a very expensive fur coat, which he said the Tibetans tried to barter off him five times a day. Slumming in downtrodden countries is a characteristic American media enterprise, and Ike has the talent and the clothes for it.

4. John F. Kennedy (1961-63) got rid of the top hat for good. He got rid of the waistcoat and ended the long era of the 3 button suit jacket. In came the two-button, worn with a skinny tie and narrow shoes. Kennedy's sailing attire-blue polo shirt, white chinos, and Wayfarer sunglasses set the style of the day.

Kennedy loved movies. He'd quote, "I followed her in. She took something else out of her purse. A gun. A little gold-plated pistol I'd never seen before. My new toy, she said. Like it? Then she pointed it at me, tightened her finger on the trigger. I was sure I was going to die, but I didn't beg, just remained calm, looked her straight in the eye and said, go ahead, spill some more innocent blood. Get filthier, you worthless piece of scum."

He ate fiercely, obsessively, an impeccably mannered cobra. Striking at his food, cutting it into tiny pieces and tenderizing it to puree before ingesting. A salad of wild greens and marinated onions. Guacamole mixed tableside using a rough stone mortar and pestle. Barbecued swordfish steaks.

"Where are we," I asked. "Mexico?"

"Mexico," he said, "is a state of mind."

"You look great," I said.

"Actually, I am healthy," he said. "Low cholesterol-I mean LDL, excellent lipids, strong heart, low blood pressure, good triglycerides. Pretty good fat/muscle ratio."

He wanted to show me his new "Real Doll," a lifelike sex doll he'd ordered. He brought me into his dressing room, where "Real Doll" slumped on a chair looking both depressed and ready at the same time. "She only costs $3,999," he said. "You can customize by choosing from four different heads, two bodies, and a variety of hair and skin colors." The doll was creepy-life-sized, wearing a miniskirt and a white blouse with a low neckline-she was far from those blow-up vinyl dolls. Yet she looked dead. I thought it was very creepy. Not only that, everyone in the U.S. had the hots for Jackie and he was playing around with a silicone doll?

"These dolls are just blank slates on which to project fantasies," I said. He smiled as if he were thinking that I felt threatened that men would prefer the silicone tribe to real women. "What kind of a world do we live in that the concept of having sex with a plastic person is widely popular? Is that the end result of technology?"

He smiled. "Feel her," he said, taking her hand and holding it out to me.

"I guess it's creepy because the doll is great because it's life-like, yet you can do things with it that you can't do with a real person," I said. "It's destabilizing notions of identity."

His smile showed all his teeth. He kissed the hand I hadn't touched, gently, as if to make up for my rejection.

5. Ronald Reagan (1981-89) was picture perfect in gleaming navy suits, always with a white pocket square. His wife Nancy and PR meister Mike Deaver tried to mothball his green plaid suit. Out at his ranch in Santa Barbara, Ronnie cut firewood in khaki riding pants and boots and a ten- gallon hat. Relaxing by the fire he wore jeans and flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up.

The ranch was big, dark, done in Neo-Home-On-The-Range-plank walls, Navajo rugs over distressed pine floors, wagon wheel chandelier brass- chained from a cathedral ceiling, a set of armchairs fashioned of cowhide stretched on a stag antler frame, wall-size oil paintings of tired-looking cowboys and bucking bronco bronzes. In the center of the room was a big claw-footed leather-topped desk. Behind the desk sat RR, bright eyed and carefully pompadour combed, square-jawed and perfectly seamed. His tan was set off by an ivory turtleneck under a white cashmere V-neck.

"The Republicans could lash out," Reagan said, "at the waste and looseness of the administration of the WPA and the PWA but not the government's obligation to keep starvation from the door of millions of families, so they urged it would work better with local or state administration, with all the bums, grifters, and welfare queens removed from the relief rolls." He put his feet up on the desk. He was wearing Tony Lamas hand-tooled leather cowboy boots-brown. He smiled at me, one side of his mouth venturing farther than the other, which made him appear mischievous, benign or maybe even moronic.

He continued, "Nancy and I and Suzy, a well-known animal communicator, met one cold day at an unheated stable where chickens, horses, goats and cats and dogs were available for discourse. I wore my plaid flannel shirt, Calvin Klein down vest and a pair of old jeans. Suzy told us that although we're all born with telepathic powers it takes patience and practice to reclaim them. She told us to get quiet, then formulate specific questions and just wait for the answers. 'Telepathy feels like you're talking to yourself,' she told me. 'You have to trust what you get.' She was wearing a Ralph Lauren denim jumpsuit with a gold mesh belt, and red leather cowboy boots.

"'Do you want to talk?' I silently asked the goats. 'No, we'd rather eat,' they said. 'Will I win the next election?' I silently asked. 'Help sick animals' flew into my mind. 'Let the sick animals help themselves. They are in a cycle of dependence,' I told the goats. Then I heard nothing. Nancy said I have trouble being receptive. I want to differ here-I'm very receptive. Contrary to speculation about her, Nancy only rarely tried to influence me when I was president. She'd just say, in a soft voice, 'Do you really think it's a good idea to do that?' I also always asked the Lord whether he'd be all right with certain decisions."

A Mexican woman with short black hair and a white apron brought us some sandwiches and a pitcher of water so cold there were drops all over the pale green glass. "Thank you Luisa," said RR. "Jure verry welcome," she said.

"Nancy and I flew off to Georgia for a golfing weekend at the Augusta National Golf Course. The night before I'd okayed a secret rescue mission at Grenada-didn't even inform the British. Couldn't say no to those six small countries who were afraid of Cuban Marxism in the Caribbean. I knew if work of the rescue mission leaked out in advance we'd hear this from some in Congress-'Sure it's starting small but once you make that first commitment Grenada's going to become another Vietnam'-that's one reason why the rescue mission up in Grenada was conducted in total secrecy. We didn't ask anybody-we just did it. I gave my approval and went to sleep. After an hour or so, I got up to play golf. I wear my plaid golf slacks and a green Lacoste golf T. and two pairs of Ray Bans."

"I was just quoting FDR , 'Government giveaway programs destroy the human spirit' (he said it, not me) when we found out about Nancy's breast cancer. Those days of decision making passed in a flash. Suddenly as we were standing by her bed after her mastectomy, there was a little movement of her body. Her eyes didn't open. I heard a tiny voice say, 'My breast is gone.' I recalled what my mother always said-'If something goes wrong you step over it, you step away from it, and you move on.' I remember thinking, hoping she'd 'hear' me telepathically, that although she's sick now, before long we'll be standing together, me in my string tie with huge turquoise bolo, my specially made collar that makes my neck look longer and my gray double-breasted Armani suit. You'll be wearing your red wool Chanel and your Ungaro scarf." His warm, brown eyes got misty. "You'll be standing straight beside me and you'll say, inspirationally, in your strongest voice, 'Just say no.'"