Because it happened about 30 years ago, I will argue that you can trust my memory of a particular event. More than you can count on Google (because I’ve looked and I can’t find it) and certainly more than you can rely on my recall of what happened last week.
One early, early morning when I was inexplicably awake, I turned on C-SPAN. Yes, that’s how I used to have fun. And I was happy to see that I had stumbled onto live BBC coverage of the State Opening of Parliament in London.
It’s a wonderfully ornate and detailed dance of state. The queen arrives in the fairytale coach and proceeds, in full crowned regalia, to the throne in the House of Lords. Her official representative, a dude known as Black Rod, walks over to the House of Commons. They slam the door in his face. Then he knocks on the door three times and they let him in. He commands them to follow him over to the Lords to hear the Queen’s Speech. And they do.
It’s all a ballet that goes back to some unpleasantness in 1642, when King Charles I tried to snatch Oliver Cromwell out of the Commons and was told by the speaker to, respectfully, stuff it. A bit later, they cut off the king’s head. Understandably, no British sovereign has set foot in the Commons since.
But the queen or king gets a bit of revenge by holding court in the Lords, where only a few top members of the Commons actually have room to stand in a doorway. And they do stand throughout.
Anyhow, on this occasion — it had to be before 1990, because Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister — one of the leaders of the Commons who poked his head into the House of Peers was a tall black bloke wearing a colorful African-style robe and round hat. He was identified by the BBC’s commentator on all things royal, David Dimbleby, as “attired in tribal garb.”
Then Dimbleby paused exactly the right number of seconds before adding — in his hushed, respectful covering-a-golf-tournament voice — something like, “Of course, everyone here today is attired in tribal garb.”
Indeed they were. Most obvious, of course, were the queen, the prince, the soldiers and attendants and pages and especially all those bewigged judges and members of the Lords. “Rats peeping through bunches of oakum,” in Thomas Jefferson’s opinion. But everyone there was wearing what their tribes wore. Thatcher in a solid but not ornate blue dress. Most of the male members of the Commons in dark suits. All, except for the robes of the African guy, designed to do nothing so much as blend in.
The other day, the official opening of the 116th Congress was a bit less formal. No royal coaches. No crowns. No scarlet robes and white wigs. No doors symbolically slammed in faces.
But there was some unusual attention paid to what people were wearing. That’s a result of the fact that there are a lot more women in Congress now and, no matter how much political power women may gain, they, unlike their male peers, have a lot of options on what they might wear. So they attract opinions and judgments.
Once and future Speaker Nancy Pelosi in regal red. Star of the moment Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in suffragette white. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico in — yes, tribal — Pueblo of Laguna designs. Two Muslim congresswomen, also in ethnic attire, one of whom took the oath on a Quran. Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. Before getting in trouble even with leaders of her own party for another kind of swearing, making reference to the president by saying, “We’re going to impeach the mother------.”
And Kyrsten Sinema, the new senator from Arizona, rocking a sleeveless dress and swearing on a law book rather than a Bible, both choices apparently designed to troll the noted Bible-clutching sexophobe who presided, Vice President Mike Pence.
Then there were Utah’s newbies, Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ben McAdams, basically two exceedingly white guys in costume for the next “Men in Black” movie. Except McAdams wore a tie striped with his trademark orange.
I still think McAdams ought to grow a beard. People might take the youthful-looking freshman more seriously. And it would probably be orange, too.
But there was no reason for these men in tribal garb to feel out of place. Even if they are no longer representative of the overwhelming majority of gender and color, when you get enough variety in a place, then nobody is out of step.
Welcome to the 21st century.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has a chin that has not seen the light of day since the Ford administration. If, that is, you could call it a chin. firstname.lastname@example.org @debatestate