Character and Freedom


People should be beautiful in every way--in their faces, in the way they dress, in their thoughts, and in their innermost selves. ~ Anton Chekhov

In November of 1967, when I was fourteen years old, Eugene McCarthy, then a Senator from Minnesota (and who, when I was twenty-one, would become my American history professor), announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States . War was raging at the time in Vietnam . But the 'name' players of the time were so convinced of President Johnson's political strength that the unknown McCarthy was the best ' indeed, the only ' candidate the nascent anti-war movement could find.

It's hard, though, to predict the future, and 1968 proved to be a very unpredictable year. On January 31, during the Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong simultaneously attacked all the major cities in South Vietnam . While they lost militarily, they won politically because the television pictures of what was called the 'Tet Offensive' made Americans wonder if there really was, as the Government insisted, 'light at the end of the tunnel' in Vietnam. Johnson's political strength began to weaken.

The first primary of 1968 was New Hampshire 's on March 12. Thousands of anti-war college students drove, hitched, or otherwise found a way to get to New Hampshire to campaign for the only candidate to oppose a war that directly threatened their lives and the lives of their friends and neighbors ' a war that many of them believed was illegal, immoral, or both. But McCarthy and his organizers knew that a sudden infusion of long-haired, bearded hippies in tie-dye and torn jeans would do his candidacy more harm than good, especially in a state as relatively conservative as New Hampshire . As a result, the 'Clean for Gene' movement was born. The hippies washed up, cut their hair, shaved their beards, and put on conservative suits (or, of course, dresses) to campaign.

Just as the Communists lost the Tet Offensive, McCarthy lost the New Hampshire primary. Johnson, who had not campaigned and, since he had not filed, was not even on the ballot, still got 49.6% of the vote as a write-in. McCarthy received 41.4%. But just as the public perceived Tet as a defeat, they perceived Johnson as a loser. McCarthy's vote total was beyond all expectations. Johnson's political strength weakened a little more.

On March 16, encouraged by McCarthy's strong showing, Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy for the Presidency. And two weeks later, on March 31, President Johnson stunned the nation and the world by announcing at the end of his nationally televised speech that 'I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.' You could make the case, then, that what drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House in 1968 ' what helped changed the course of American history ' was . . .

Clothing. Appearance. If those hippies had gone door-to-door in T-shirts and jeans, McCarthy might not have 'won.' If McCarthy had not won, Kennedy would not have entered the race. If Kennedy had not entered the race, Johnson would not have dropped out. If Johnson had not dropped out, Nixon would not have become President. If Nixon had not become President . . .

The 'Clean for Gene' campaign of 1968 revolved around clothing and the perception, the interpretation, of that clothing by others. To the hippies, what a person was on the inside was more important than what they looked like on the outside. But to McCarthy and his staff, what a person looked like on the outside signified what they were on the inside, and they knew that if their volunteers dressed in a way that essentially disrespected the voters of conservative New Hampshire , their message would never be considered or even heard, let alone accepted.

So many of us tend not to think about others, least of all when we dress. We rarely think about what it signifies to others. We often dress only to please ourselves. And in many cases, pleasing ourselves means 'casual' and 'comfortable.' As a result, we wear T-shirts, jeans, sneakers and resist any sort of formality in clothing. And certainly, as one who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, I shared that attitude for a very long time. You can perhaps see that in the photo that accompanies these writings of mine.

But in the last few years I've started to see, to understand, and to appreciate the effects clothing can have. On a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2001, I started to make connections between the way people dressed and the respect they had showed to one another. Now certainly the Virginia of 1770 was just as hot and sticky and uncomfortable in the summer as the Virginia of 2001. And yet people did not parade around in shorts and sandals. They did not present themselves in public half-dressed. They had more respect for themselves and for others than to do something like that.

I mulled this over for several months and decided with the new year to integrate my thinking into my writing classes. I had already decided to emphasize a more grammatical understanding of language. I wanted to stress attention to detail, and it occurred to me that wearing 'casual' and 'comfortable' clothing would not lend visual credence to what I was saying. I wanted them to take our time together seriously ' but how could I ask that when I didn't look serious? How could I ask them to learn when I didn't look knowledgeable? I had told myself my whole life that it didn't matter how I dressed, and at long last a little voice in my head replied, 'If that's true, why won't you dress well?'

And so I did. I started wearing suits to class. And it resulted in a number of curious things. First, students did take things I said more seriously. They paid more attention in class. And it occurred to me that they interpreted my suits as caring not only about myself but about them. It pleased them that I would take the time and effort to look good for them, especially when they knew full well that I certainly didn't have to do it, that it was totally a free choice on my part.

Second, I found that I felt better. I felt more intelligent, more important, more respectable. I began to wonder why I'd been dressing like a boy ' and perhaps more importantly, thinking about myself as a boy ' for all those years? And it occurred to me that I'd been, in effect, disrespecting myself. I didn't think enough of myself to look good. It didn't matter if I looked good ' after all, I was just another insignificant schlubs, wasn't I? Just another nobody. As a result, I not only dressed badly, I actively disparaged anyone who looked good, who took the time and energy to dress well. I thought he was only doing it for himself. But it occurred to me that it couldn't be just for himself because no clothing is just for the wearer. Putting on clothing is writing as surely as putting words on a page is. It communicates. And looking at people is reading just as surely as looking at words on a page is. We all dress for others whether we're conscious of it, whether we care about it or about them, or not.

We dress poorly because we don't care about ourselves and we don't care about others. We don't respect them and we don't respect ourselves. We dress like we're insignificant, like we're not worthy of fineness, of elegance and beauty, of dignity; certainly the culture encourages us in that (and I don't for a second believe it's just a coincidence). We tell ourselves it doesn't matter, but it does. It matters immensely because in respecting ourselves, we respect others. We've let media images of businessmen and politicians wash over us. We don't want to be like them so we don't want to look like them. But I refuse to cede beauty, grace, and elegance to these bastards any longer.

In taking time and effort to look good, to dress well, we add a little beauty, a little grace, a little elegance ' a little dignity ' to a world that could use more of all those things. Without uttering a word, we tell people that we respect not only ourselves but also every individual with whom we come into personal contact. And unless we can regain that sense of mutual respect, any desire for freedom, any chance of ever obtaining it again, is just another impossible dream. It's time for those of us who cherish liberty, then ' as silly and superficial as it might at first seem ' to dress the part.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.