If you’re running for president, being chic is dangerous, and, on the eve of the last debate before the Iowa caucuses Pete Buttigieg is finding that out.
The Oxford English dictionary defines chic as “stylishness and elegance in dress”, but in 1970 Tom Wolfe weaponized the term by coupling it with “radical” and extending its meaning to the modishly rich and famous who strive to be seen hosting good causes.
In a landmark piece of reporting in New York magazine, titled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” Wolfe described a party given by Leonard Bernstein—the egregio maestro as Wolf named him—and his wife in their 13-room penthouse on Park Avenue:
“It is that moment that Lenny loves… a penthouse full of stars, a Manhattan tower full of stars… and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers…”
To be sure, Buttigieg’s wardrobe and hairstyle are nothing like as fearsome as that of the Panthers described by Wolfe—“black leather coat, dark glasses, and the absolutely unbelievable Afro”—but it seems that he is perfectly cast to be acceptable as the Democratic contender most likely to receive the hospitality (and donations) of a new outbreak of radical chic.
Democrats always need to be wary of this phenomenon because it provides the kind of five-second video clips that Republican spinmeisters seize on to brand a candidate as a puppet of the liberal elite.
It all coalesced for Buttigieg with a lead story in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times.
There he was, impeccably suited, standing alongside a seated Anna Wintour, who for decades has embodied and defined the power of Manhattan chic to the nth degree.
To sustain the point, the Times noted the various watering holes along the road of radical chic where Buttigieg had been invited to sweep up donations: Provincetown, Massachusetts; West Hollywood; the Napa Valley; and somewhere in the Hamptons that remained undisclosed. That, of course, doesn’t include a number of Manhattan salons from the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue to Ms Wintour’s townhouse in the West Village.
Since the 1970s the sources of donor wealth have significantly changed, with the arrival of people who just make money with money. There were no Wall Street bankers and no hedge fund managers in Wolfe’s list of guests at the Bernstein party. Instead, the new money was from Hollywood and Broadway, while the old money was from what remained of the old robber baron fortunes.
Now the money organizing money for Buttigieg is described by the Times as “high net-worth bundlers” who include internet entrepreneurs, real estate developers and assorted billionaires. (Buttigieg refuses money from federal lobbyists, corporate political action committees and the fossil fuel industry.)
Buttigieg received a lot of flak for turning up at a Napa winery owned by Craig and Kathryn Hall because the optics just seemed over the top, specifically the “Chandelier Room” where tastings of their top wines are by appointment only and cost $250 per person.
It may reflect badly as unseemly opulence but, by any sane measure, the Halls are definitely not chic. They have merely cashed in on an egregious Napa racket of turning average wines into an over-priced luxury product by marketing wineries as exclusive “experiences” rather than bottling plants.
All of this stuff ensnares Buttigieg in a trap that shrewder campaign managers might have seen coming. He’s an impressive and issue-fluent candidate with the asset of being a war veteran and who successfully broke clear of two supposed handicaps: having no political record beyond being a small city mayor, and being openly gay.
There was obviously careful deliberation about his wardrobe. The blue suits he favors have a quietly corporate cut, somewhat like the Mad Men look of the 1960s. But when South Bend, Indiana, is drawn toward the beckoning bejeweled hand of metropolitan radical chic the game becomes far more treacherous than simply careful dressing.
These fundraisers are often lavish mutual vanity projects in which the donors expect to receive, in return for their largesse, the halo effect of the candidates they support.
It’s important to note that, as the donors and professional event planners make their choice of who among the candidates deserves their bounty and blessings, they are automatically framing the selection according to their own ideas of chicness.
The result is that out there in the heartlands the sight of a candidate moving around at ease in such privileged company is really bad messaging. Since November Buttigieg has slipped 9 points in the Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa polling. But the South is far tougher for him. He has won few endorsements in South Carolina.
To be sure, over the years, Vice President Joe Biden has done his bit of schmoozing with the 1-percenters and he’s still doing it, but he doesn’t have the appeal of a new face that makes Buttigieg such a trophy for the salonistas. It may be unfair, but to the people in the real world, where this presidential election will be decided, it looks too much like he’s courting the wrong kind of celebrity.
There is another youthful star of the Democratic party, not yet ready to run, who needs to be careful about attracting this stigma: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has the kind of glamour that needs no instruction in chic—it’s natural to her. For her just to show up is worth a mint to any hostess or business.
I noticed this when she appeared in a story about the exclusive all-women’s club The Wing in New York’s SoHo, where the basic membership costs between $200 and $300 a month and where, according to the writer, “the air temperature is set to a balmy 71-73 degrees (female productivity has been proven to diminish when the thermostat dips much below 72).”
AOC was pictured being greeted like an Oscar nominee on the red carpet. What multiplied the effect of her chicness was the magazine that ran the story—the shamelessly named How To Spend It weekend supplement to the Financial Times. On a neighboring page was a piece recommending a watch that cost $500,000 (Christopher Claret red-gold and titanium Soprano, if you’re interested).
Those women who have to endure temperatures outside the comfort zone of The Wing won’t feel any kinship with a pol who moves at that altitude.
And who remembers Beto O’Rourke now? He became an early casualty of being anointed as super-chic in a cover story in Vanity Fair, the uber-celebrity placement machine that posed O’Rourke like a cerebral version of Marlboro Man and gushed: “O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, an educator nine years his junior, both describe the moment when they first witnessed the power of O’Rourke’s gift…”
In his piece about the Bernstein party Wolfe quotes one of the guests citing Lord Jersey: “Contrary to what the Methodists tell us, money and success are good for the soul.” No doubt, but it can also prove to be radioactive to those who get too close to it.
Of course, the Republicans don’t have this problem. They define the un-chic. Mitch McConnell is about as chic as a turnip. Steve Bannon, though, does have a personal line in paramilitary jackets that could qualify as a kind of slob chic. As for Trump, he knows he can have his nose as deep in the donor trough as he likes without ever attracting the risk of contamination from the curse of the chic because who could be less chic than the emperor of Mar-a-Lago, where everything is so faux and over-gilded that it would make even Louis XIV cringe.
No, it’s the Dems who need to be hypersensitive to the risk of guilt by association.
Bernie Sanders has no trace of chic in his body or his brain. Elizabeth Warren’s problem is not radical chic but being too radical—with her health care plan. They are smart enough to know that Buttigieg is sinking himself by so unwarily becoming the pet of the salonistas—and they know that nothing will sink the Democratic party faster than being endorsed by that crowd.