When I moved to Boise I was still in my flip flop phase. I was not that into shoes for a number of years.
I thought I had found a town that was cool with that.
The East Coast prep school I attended for four years was not that into flip flops. I wore a tie every day of high school and kept a blue blazer in my locker.
Prep school drove me West.
My first winter here I landed a job at a still-rural daily paper just west of Boise. The mayors and county commissioners out there still wore jeans to work.
I started dressing like a reporter. That is to say, I started dressing so as not to be confused for a lawyer. I sat at the back of council meetings differentiating myself from the city lawyers who came to rip off the farmers and build tract housing throughout the country.
Their suits did not impress us.
Then I bought cowboy boots and started occasionally wearing a Stetson. Which got a little weird.
Then we moved to California for a few years where reporters more and more dress like lawyers. Especially at the big city papers.
So when I returned to Idaho, and started covering the statehouse in Boise for the local alt weekly, I was shocked to find that the Idaho dress code had been Californicated.
Perhaps it had always been this way. I do recall former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s blow dried ‘do. And Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter, whose reputation is more toward the jeans and boots of a county commissioner, actually wears tailored shirts with his name embroidered into the cuffs.
It’s not that I care so much what they all wear, but it’s part of a two-pronged pattern that makes for mad Idaho voters.
The first prong is the professionalization of the citizen legislator.
A local political science professor recently asked me to speculate on the differences between lowly state representatives and the perceived higher position of state senator.
His thesis is that there is no real reason for a difference between the two houses: they have the same terms and pretty much the same jobs.
One of the differences however is that the internalized elitism in the Senate breeds a permanent political class. The longer they serve, the more state legislator conventions they go to, the more personally enriched they become the better suits they start wearing: it’s all part of a pattern of forgetting their farmer roots.
Case in point: A page handed me a folded note during a crowded, emotional hearing of the Senate State Affairs Committee.
“You look hansome!” it read, and then, parenthetically, “Professional in attire compared to your pajamas from the other day.”
Signed, by a senator who will go unnamed for journalistic reasons that I’m not totally sure of. Perhaps he has successfully co-opted me.
Which leads me to the second, and more enraging prong: the use of their positions of power to co-opt the press.
The longer we serve alongside them, the more journalism conferences we go to, the longer we survive the death of the papers, the better suits we wear all serve to distance us from our bulldog roots.
But in Idaho, in the lower House of Representatives, the meddling goes even deeper.
The Speaker of the House this year insisted that reporters say the Pledge of Allegiance along with the body or stay off the floor until lawmakers are done Pledging.
A local Christian right provocateur dared ask how the press could be trusted if reporters refused to Pledge. (Without irony, he asked this in the form of a press release to the local media on which he relies for his fame.)
I would say that standing in our monkey suits surrounded by the body we cover and reciting a loyalty oath that has been gerrymandered into a Christian prayer is no way to start the day in a fair and balanced manner.
How’s that for burying the lead?
To be a proper outside observer, reporters must remain outside the system. And codes of any sort – dress codes, religious codes, ceremonial codes – are part and parcel of the system. The government’s insistence on rules and decorum makes sense for their process. It does not make sense for ours.
The Idaho Legislature is coming to an end for 2008, hopefully by midweek.
And it’s just in time to break out the flip flops again.