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FIRST-PERSON – Style, morality & truth: The least of these is style

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–The other day in the barber shop, I picked up a copy of People magazine, the issue featuring “the best and worst dressed of 2001.”

One spread illustrated seven “horrors” to avoid. For openers, they hit Martha Stewart for wearing panty hose with open-toe shoes and Bruce Willis for mixing white tube socks with sandals.

The magazine had catty observations on everything from Hillary Swank’s purse (“a feather duster”) to Sigourney Weaver’s corsage (“a red Chia pet”) to Denise Rich’s floral pantsuit (“was once a couch,” now needing “a presidential pardon”). But hooray for Cuba Gooding, Tim McGraw and Mark Wahlberg who had the good sense to go with Armani.

Why spend time on such trivia in the wake of tragedy? Because I’m mocking similar silliness in the news coverage of President Bush’s response to the Sept. 11 tragedy. Having nothing better to say during the stretches of airtime they had to fill, chafing at a national unity which threatened their political agendas, or showing themselves more aesthetes than journalists, they insisted on giving our president style points for his posture, tone, timing, camera presence, dress, etc. You’d have thought we had Joan Rivers and her daughter doing the news.

Here’s a sampling: Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg said the president “lacked size in front of the camera,” seeming “almost like a little boy at times — a kid with freckles wishing he were somewhere else.” PBS’ Mark Shields said he’d failed to “establish a sense of command” and, though he didn’t “mean to be nitpicking on him,” he faulted him for the use of a bullhorn at ground zero. (The transcript shows Shields struggling to find the word — “bull sound” … “mega horn”.)

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman observed, “Bush has yet to find a note of eloquence in his own voice” and added that he “did not look larger than life at his Oval Office desk, or even particularly comfortable.” Newsday’s Ellis Henican wondered whether the president was “frightened he’d flub the prompter read.”

Most gave him a better rating for his subsequent address before Congress, so what’s the problem? What’s wrong with this talk of style, presence and such? Surely bearing counts for something.

Well, indeed it does. The armed forces prescribe bearing for officers, along with such other leadership principles as knowledge, courage, judgment, decisiveness and loyalty. You don’t want a slouching officer with a hangover, sounding orders in a prissy voice. And you don’t want the State of the Union address delivered by a mumbling president reclining on a couch in a tank top. But I think we’ve run too far to the other end of the continuum, fussing over style points when a good man, a regular guy, if you will, is giving it his responsible best in a tough spot.

The Bible is not kind to this sort of sniping. Saul was “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites — a head taller than any of the others,” but he turned out to be a tragically faithless coward. Paul struggled to defend his ministry against those who said that “in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing,” but he turned out all right. In Isaiah 53:2, we read of Jesus, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Sure, a union of style, morality and truth are stunning, but if one of them has to go, let it be style. Otherwise, we could be suckers for finesse over substance. If we’re not careful, we might find ourselves someday electing and reelecting a promiscuous, dissembling and mediocre leader with flattering eyes, empathetic voice, imposing frame, fine diction, arresting handshake, roguish charm and marvelous brashness. It could happen.

Save us from moral and linguistic contortionists with stirring presentation and fetching ways. Give us straight walkers and straight shooters, and we’ll leave the aesthetics to those who have nothing better to do.
Coppenger’s next column will appear in Baptist Press Thursday, Sept. 27.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger