President Joe Biden delivered a historic joint address Wednesday, telling the nation, “We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — pandemic and pain — and ‘We the People’ did not flinch.”
More important for the 200 members of Congress in attendance, though, was the opportunity to steal some of the national spotlight.
In normal years, members enlist human props called guests — usually some inspiring person who has suffered some tragedy that the lawmaker’s bill would have prevented — in an attempt to garner a little media attention. But — and stop us if you’ve heard this before — this is not a normal year.
COVID-19 restrictions cut attendance down from the regular crowd of around 1,000, meaning there weren’t enough invites for even half of Congress, let alone their typical coterie of walking, talking campaign ads.
So, how do you draw the camera’s eye if you don’t have a prop in person form to dangle in front of a cable news producer? You make a statement, of course — a fashion statement.
Members have long used their sartorial choices to draw attention at these speeches. Democratic women during the Trump era coordinated colors, wearing white in 2017, 2019 and 2020, and black in 2018.
White was the color of the suffragettes in the United States, and when Democrats first invoked its memory, they said it was to highlight their opposition to Republican revanchism on women’s issues. They went black to show solidarity with the Me Too movement.
But this year, with Biden in the White House and their party in control of both chambers of Congress, Democratic women embraced color again.
Some members shunted to the nosebleed sections of the galleries appeared to coordinate their looks. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire and Kathy Castor of Florida all sported bright magenta outfits. But a spokesman for Wasserman Schultz said it was a coincidence.
As Biden walked into the chamber, Wasserman Schultz, head of the Moms of the House Caucus, pulled the ultimate mom move, using her iPad to snap photos.
Most of the male lawmakers stuck largely to staid suits — shades of blue and black over white shirts, ties primarily hues of red or blue.
The easiest and more direct way to say something with what you’re wearing during a pandemic: masks.
But floor staff inadvertently countered that, encouraging members to use unbranded, medical-grade KN95 masks. Those who wore their own masks mostly stuck with unadorned black or gray. Even outspoken Rep. Lauren Boebert, who introduced a bill to overturn federal mask mandates and has made a name for herself with partisan showmanship, wore a plain black mask.
That said, Boebert appeared to get chilly during Biden’s speech, unfurling a foil emergency blanket — the type you sometimes see thrown over marathon runners at the finish line — onto her lap and causing a loud crinkle that was heard throughout the chamber but didn’t get picked up by the TV microphones.
Some members managed to pull off some good old-fashioned pandering. Rep. Tom Cole sported a Sooners mask — he got his Ph.D. in history from the University of Oklahoma.
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks rocked a mask with a big number 6 on it — a reference to her wafer-thin, six vote margin of victory last year, which also inspired the name of her leadership political action committee: Six PAC.
Rep. Barbara Lee sported a mask with “Good Trouble” written on it, an allusion to the late John Lewis. Masks with the phrase were handed out at his funeral last year.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s mask was subtle — from a distance, it appeared to be just plain gray, but when the cameras zoomed in close, you could see “Come and take it” embroidered over the silhouette of a rifle.