This week, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. Almost immediately, some slammed the awards as showing an anti-Bush bias. Escaping the controversy was Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan, winner of the prize for criticism. But a closer look at her writing shows that in Washington, even getting dressed in the morning can be a political act. Brooke chats with Givhan about what’s under our leaders’ clothes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. Almost immediately, some slammed the awards for perceived anti-Bush bias. Two awards received most of the attention, the first, for a Washington Post investigation into secret CIA prisons in Europe, and the second, for a New York Times piece that exposed the National Security Agency's domestic spying program. William Bennett, former Reagan and Bush senior administration official, said on his radio show that the reporters were, quote, "not worthy of an award, they're worthy of jail." Overlooked in this controversy, the prize for criticism, awarded to Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan. It was a first for that Pulitzer award. Surprising, but not so surprising once you read the trenchant political commentary contained in Givhan's sparkling prose. Here's what she wrote about Vice-President Dick Cheney's outerwear when world leaders gathered in Poland last year to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Quote, "Dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow-blower, Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they're sent away to camp. And, indeed, the Vice-President looked like an awkward boy amid the well-dressed adults." But Givhan says the first piece to cause a real buzz was the one she wrote about Katherine Harris who, as Florida's Secretary of State, presided over the contested 2000 Presidential election vote count in Florida.
ROBIN GIVHAN: She was quite a lightning rod, and she also had a really unusual appearance when she got in front of the camera. She was wearing an incredible amount of makeup. It was thick and it looked like a mask. And it seemed to suggest that at a time when what the country seemed to really need was a calm and a very methodical, thoughtful approach to the recount, here was a woman who seemed intent on drawing an incredible amount of attention to herself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were saying that her makeup job, the sheer artificiality of it, just made you nervous.
ROBIN GIVHAN: Yeah. You know, I think a lot of the way that we perceive a message has to do with the messenger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you get an angry response from that piece? Did people say, “Look, get your nose out of politics and keep it in fashion, where it belongs?”
ROBIN GIVHAN: I would say that I got a flash flood of outrage. [LAUGHTER] You know, it really surprised me, in part because they all seemed to believe that I had a real agenda in mind, whereas I didn't. I was simply looking at, you know, this person delivering the information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For instance, you wrote very favorably about the wardrobe choices of Condoleezza Rice during a visit to a German military base last year, when she wore knee-high boots and a black coat. You compared her to something from the film "The Matrix," and you wrote, "She walked out draped in a banner of authority, power and toughness. She was not hiding behind matronliness, androgyny or the stereotype of the steel magnolia. Rice brought her full self to the world stage, and that included her sexuality. It was not overt or inappropriate. If it was distracting, it's only because it is so rare."
ROBIN GIVHAN: Well, I think one of the reasons why I was so enthusiastic about Condoleezza Rice's appearance was because she showed this real interest and appreciation for fashion and for style. And what I loved about it was that it was sexy. It was really, for me, like a breath of fresh air. You know, I'm not looking to see if they're wearing designer labels, necessarily, unless for some reason it really stands out, as when Martha Stewart, for instance, went to court arguing that she was this sort of everywoman who was being unfairly attacked, and she walked in with an Hermes Birkin bag, which is, you know, easily a 10,000-dollar handbag.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there a fashion stereotype for the American politician, male and female?
ROBIN GIVHAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, the uniform for the male politician is the dark suit, the white shirt and always a red tie, and lately it's been an American flag pin on the lapel. For women, it typically is a suit in either red or blue or perhaps black, and their lapel accessory is the eagle perched atop a pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Oh, dear.
ROBIN GIVHAN: Yes. [LAUGHTER] It is the famed eagle on the pearl pin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I wonder how politicians in general react to you, whether you make them quake in fear because, after all, you criticize them in an area they're not as well-versed in as, say, they might be in health care or immigration reform.
ROBIN GIVHAN: Well, I think a lot of them are well-versed enough in that they know that when they get up there in front of the public, people are taking in the whole image from the business suit to the words that are coming out of their mouth. And I think one of the reasons why male politicians tend to wear a uniform is because it is an easy way to kind of quickly dispense with the physical and get straight to the words.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who's Washington's worst fashion victim?
ROBIN GIVHAN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And who's the fashion plate? Come on!
ROBIN GIVHAN: You know, I try not to so much say good or bad but more what's going on there? Just why?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Is it sometimes utterly inexplicable?
ROBIN GIVHAN: The short answer is yes. Sometimes you look at what some of these guys are wearing and some of the women are wearing and you just think, no full-length mirror.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ROBIN GIVHAN: Like, what were you thinking?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Robin, thank you very much.
ROBIN GIVHAN: [LAUGHING] Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And congratulations.
ROBIN GIVHAN: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robin Givhan is a fashion writer at The Washington Post, and recipient of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Mark Phillips, Anni Katz and Andy Lancet. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.