It seems I’m always late finding these articles, but nonetheless I still want to share this blog entry from The Washington Post inspired by Bobby Rush’s recent run-in with the House dress code, which requires not just shirt and shoes, but jackets and bare heads. Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger dug up examples of past House members who used clothing and personal style to make statements about themselves and their politics.
Bella Abzug was indeed famous for wearing hats, but never wore one on the House floor–hats had been prohibited since 1837. Despite a relatively short time in Congress, she made a strong impression with a brash, even abrasive, personal style; she courted controversy in matters non-sartorial and tackled issues like American involvement in Vietnam headfirst, inspiring other women to engage in politics themselves.
John Randolph of Roanoke, on the other hand, spent more than 30 years in Congress beginning in 1799, mostly in the House. Frequently at the forefront of debates, he cut a striking figure and applied his cutting wit to many a target. In his Congress of the United States, Alvin Josephy describes Randolph: “he swaggered around the House floor like a strange, tormented autocrat, booted and spurred, swinging a riding crop imperiously, often with one or two foxhounds at his heels.” (131) The Post piece focuses on one of Randolph’s interactions with Speaker Henry Clay, whom Randolph grew to dislike intensely. Clay is the subject of one of Randolph’s most well-known barbs; Randolph described Clay as “this being, so brilliant yet so corrupt, which, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks.” (Josephy 148) In his later years, Randolph’s effectiveness decreased as he struggled with alcoholism and mental instability, but he served in Congress until his death in 1833.
Jim Mattox, a member from Texas, is perhaps better known for his time as attorney general of Texas and as Ann Richards’ opponent in the primary race for governor. However, his 1979 coat-and-tie-less protest of higher summer settings for the Capitol’s AC garnered nationwide coverage. Here, a Washington state paper re-prints a Dallas Times Herald article covering Mattox’s encounter with Speaker Tip O’Neill in detail.
My question for Roberts and Argetsinger: no mention of the Seersucker Caucus? More whimsy than drama, perhaps.
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The American Heritage History of the Congress of the United States. American Heritage Publishing Co., 1975.