George H.W. Bush
Credit: Nicholas Hall/Wikimedia Commons

One of the first freakouts the right engineered after Barack Obama became president occurred only one week after he took office in 2009. They managed to win a full article in the New York Times dedicated largely to the fact that the new occupant of the Oval Office showed up to work on the weekend in business casual attire and allowed his staff to do the same.

If Mr. Obama’s clock is looser than Mr. Bush’s, so too are his sartorial standards. Over the weekend, Mr. Obama’s first in office, his aides did not quite know how to dress. Some showed up in the West Wing in jeans (another no-no under Mr. Bush), some in coats and ties.

So the president issued an informal edict for “business casual” on weekends — and set his own example. He showed up Saturday for a briefing with his chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, dressed in slacks and a gray sweater over a white buttoned-down shirt. Workers from the Bush White House are shocked.

“I’ll never forget going to work on a Saturday morning, getting called down to the Oval Office because there was something he was mad about,” said Dan Bartlett, who was counselor to Mr. Bush. “I had on khakis and a buttoned-down shirt, and I had to stand by the door and get chewed out for about 15 minutes. He wouldn’t even let me cross the threshold.”

This would not be the last time that President Obama was accused of not having a proper respect for the dignity of the office.

I have a really bad memory except for certain things. It’s a long time ago now, but I still remember the story the new Bush administration engineered in the early days of Dubya’s presidency about the freaking dress code and its importance. I will quote this at length:

One of the very first decisions President Bush made after his inauguration was to reinstate the White House dress code. Like much of what he does, this move seemed to be primarily aimed at pleasing his father. It can’t be easy having George Sr. for a dad, and it’s too bad about the president’s inner child, but it’s hard to watch Bush use policy to gain his father’s approval and not feel uncomfortable — it’s like we’ve walked in on something really private.

The dress code was established initially by the first Bush administration, and, at the time, it specified that women wear knee-length skirts and stockings in the West Wing. In other words, during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bush the Elder, only the boys wore pants. Because this was an idea whose time came — and went — in the Paleozoic era, the minor style revolution that followed with the election of Bill Clinton was totally inadvertent.

“On Inauguration Day, I was wearing a pantsuit,” Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s former press secretary, told Chris Bury on “Nightline” two days after George W. Bush’s inauguration. “It was a very cold day in Washington and when I came into the West Wing, I actually broke what had been a Reagan and Bush protocol rule, which was: Women weren’t allowed to wear slacks. And so we sort of changed that protocol right from the very beginning, accidentally. I don’t think any of us realized there was a dress code that officially or unofficially discouraged or barred women from wearing slacks.”

The no-pants rule was never rehabilitated, so after the recent dress code announcement, many feared the worst: nude pantyhose. When Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer eventually declared that “the [women’s] pantsuits can stay,” women outside the Amish community breathed a collective sigh of relief.

He made it clear, however, that in this administration, West Wing women would be required to wear “appropriate business attire” and men would be expected to wear suits and ties at all times. The point, as one aide told the New York Times, was “to treat the office with respect.”

In case that isn’t clear enough for you, even back in 2001, the right-wing media was geared up to amplify the point.

“Mr. Bush is restoring the dignity that used to be associated with the Presidency,” wrote Tom Barrett on “Gone are the blue jeans, tie-dyes, T-shirts and jogging shorts that were considered appropriate attire during Clinton’s Presidency.”

“Out are the 20-something, denim-wearing, pony-tailed Clintonites known for strewing pizza boxes throughout the halls,” wrote Joseph Curl of the Washington Times. “In are the 30- and 40-something, box-cut, scrubbed-clean, suit-and-tie-wearing Bushies.”

This whole narrative was tiresome from the beginning, but it was at least in part based on the fact the new president wanted to run his White House in a way that would meet the approval of his father. Running the executive branch of the federal government is a serious job and Poppy Bush thought his staff should look the part.

This is what I think about when I read President Trump’s tweets.

It’s not that I ever thought criticisms that the Clinton administration (as opposed to the president himself) didn’t uphold the dignity of the office were serious. It’s just that I look at what Trump does and I try to imagine how Poppy must feel about it.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at