Facebook Twitter

AMERICAN STYLE MUST BE SIMPLE AND DIGNIFIED

SHARE AMERICAN STYLE MUST BE SIMPLE AND DIGNIFIED

America has never settled its presidential etiquette problem. As Miss Manners recalls, this was put on the agenda in anticipation of the Washington administration and we're still working on it.

The question is: How should a president of the United States comport himself and conduct state functions in order to maintain the dignity of the office and of the country, without acting like a silly fool who seems to think he's king?Every new president of the United States has been expected to work this out for himself, and after an amazingly short while, we let him know that he's getting it wrong. We call this The American Way. If he forgets he won office as a man of the people, we ridicule him. If he is too good at showing us how ordinary he is, we complain that he doesn't look presidential. At that, he gets off more easily than his wife, to whom we assign ceremonial tasks so we can scorn her for being frivolous, when we're not complaining that she has no business interesting herself in substantive state matters.

Over the centuries, Miss Manners has argued, with equal fervor, for both less and more ceremony at the White House.

Without disrespect to the gentlemen involved, she was as shocked when President-elect Washington entertained the notion that "Your High and Mightiness" would be a catchy way to be addressed, as she was when President Jefferson received dignitaries at the White House while wearing his house slippers. She thought it was as great a stylistic error for President Carter to be sworn into office under his nickname as for President Nixon to wear a business suit on the beach.

Jumping from one side to another (and neatly across party lines), Miss Manners has nevertheless been maintaining a consistent position. It is that the American official style must be both simple and dignified. And that these are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Any whiff of imperialism is, of course, symbolically wrong for this country. We get a good chuckle out of anyone who tries it. But this does not mean that we belittle any solemnity, so that we can have no formal occasions or meaningful rituals.

"Informal" is not another word for "warm and caring." Actually, it can mean not caring, when it involves ignoring the forms of respect and national ceremony symbolic of egalitarianism. And "ceremony" is not another word for "frivolity."

Miss Manners recognizes that there has been a general lessening of the use of formal clothing and manners in the society in this century and doesn't necessarily deplore it. (If she never sees a bustle again, it will be too soon.) And increased public exposure has accustomed us to seeing presidents under properly informal circumstances, as well as on state occasions.

But for its most formal events the White House has slipped into practices below the standards that are still in effect for the most formal occasions in which most citizens participate - their weddings.

In current use, there are three degrees of formality above jeans and jogging outfits: suits and ties for gentlemen and daytime suits or dresses for ladies; the sack coat (day) and black tie (evening), with afternoon and dinner dresses respectively; and morning dress (day) and white tie (evening), with dressy dresses and hats, and ball dresses with above-the-elbow gloves.

It's been a while since we have had any but the lowest degree of formality at an inauguration, and since we have had the highest at a state function. Now, if killing formality were the price of doing away with ostentation, Miss Manners would have considered it a bargain. Unfortunately the decline of Washington's tradition of modest and serviceable formality (in what other city do ladies yearn for evening dresses that are durable and inconspicuous?) had no discouraging effect on vulgarity.

Most people expect written answers to their formal wedding invitations; the White House ceased requiring any but mere telephone calls years ago. About the same time, the rule that one never refused a White House invitation except for dire reasons fell into disuse, and entertainers and others bragged publicly that they were too busy to accept what ought to have been treated as a high honor.

Miss Manners is afraid that abandoning standards is not a sign of character. The fact is that there are two types of pretentiousness: acting so grand that you require constant splendor, and acting so grand that you need not take seriously ceremonies and events that ordinary citizens revere.