Ahoy, friends. I’m violating the first rule my father instilled in me to bring to you an assessment of George Kent’s sartorial choices in the midst of this impeachment imbroglio. I’m putting something in writing. Here goes.
By now you’ve all watched the testimony or seen the pictures. George Kent, hair coiffed and combed, sits resplendent in gray suit and lavish bowtie. Bill Taylor, in dark suit and monochrome tie sits to his left, slouching to speak into his microphone and pressing his oversized glasses up the bridge of his nose. Each man is, in his way, an archetype of the disciplined, public-spirited civil servant. Each, with funereal seriousness, intones about his dread that, horror of horrors, the president asked the Ukrainians to look into what the Bidens were up to in Kiev.
Yet Kent is a special breed. And I want to talk about his manner, his three-piece, and his bowtie.
Kent and I are contemporaries and we’ve almost certainly bumped into one another a couple of times over the years, though I can’t recall a specific instance. He was at Harvard and I was at Yale, so our circles overlap, though less than you might expect. Still I feel I know the man. Like several of my classmates, he went the mid-Atlantic route and settled into the comfortable obsolescence of a regional expert at State. What else could a Sovietologist who graduated in 1989 really do? For my part, I bounced between front offices in New York and assembled enough to get by despite alimony. On a basic, demographic level we understand each other.
Yet I’ve never fully understood the mentality of a diplomat. I appreciate the emphasis on ceremony and the work-sanctioned, globe-trotting tippling. But I retain a certain skepticism about trusting too much in our own expertise. Enough years in and out of the bond market will do that to a man. Granted, I’m a low-performing stem from Puritan seed and the old-time religion of my grandsires preached nothing if not modesty about one’s own capacity to know. The sorrows of life and political economy matter little in the face of predestination.
Nonetheless, this particular diplomat’s pretense — to present one’s self quite literally in a gray flannel suit — is too much even for me. George Kent is many things, but a Tom Rath everyman hoping only to spend more time in the comforting bosom of family life? Hardly.
Each well-heeled goon socked away in some dingy corner of Foggy Bottom, or some dingy capital in an antique land, longs for the day his number comes up and he’s called to convert his entire career into a moment of consequence. They toil away earnestly enough, but each longs to be begged by America to come out from the shadows and bestow his wisdom upon the proles.
And nothing says grandiosity like a three-piece suit and a bowtie in the middle of November. ‘I am a slave to my books, my cables, and my own obscurity’, it cries. ‘I am a man without ambition who would rather be hidden in his modest office keeping tabs on the comings and goings in earth’s far flung corners so you can sleep well at night.’ Above all, it whispers, ‘You can trust me, for I am without guile.’
But George can’t help but smile, giving away the game. See, I have no doubt Mr Kent owns something perfectly serviceable in a more modest vein. Or if he was feeling punchy, he could have gone with Jacobi Press’s extra pocket flap for flare. Not everyone in the federal service must follow Taylor’s lead and look like a G-Man trying to dry out after a goodbye party or a wake. My point is that George is using his clothes to send a very specific message to the worshipful onlookers in the press.
What message? It’s the standard conceit of every Ivy Leaguer, present company included. Through some ineffable admixture of innate genius, generations of good breeding, and a top notch education (on paper at least), we are the men we have been waiting for. We stand apart from the smutty democratic habits of a society we just know will one day call on us to save it from itself.
The truth is, of course, that we’re mostly just afraid of failure. We tell ourselves myths about standing above the fray, keeping clear of office politics, embracing our hobbies as improving diversions. So we toil away in mediocrity, obscurity, or both. And it’s a fine life. I’m not complaining, you’ll notice.
Then along comes a chance to testify before Congress about things we neither saw nor heard, but about which we have the most earnest and urgent of concerns. The nation calls, or so we tell ourselves. Out comes the gray suit and the flamboyant, fatuous bow tie with matching pocket square. It’s show time.
Digby Dent writes The Spectator’s Wasp Life column