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Jon Stewart, the GOP debate and the great suit divide

Jon Stewart, the GOP debate and the great suit divide
Republican presidential candidates from left, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson talk Thursday during a break in the first Republican presidential debate. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Thursday was a big night for political culture, what with the first Republican debate on Fox News and the last “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central. But for style and panache? Not altogether.

What struck me while watching both the early GOP heat and the main event was that every male candidate could have used a more closely tailored suit.

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Stewart, on the other hand, has been no slouch in the suit department these past 16 years.

Throughout his run, he’s worn Giorgio Armani made-to-measure suits, shirts and neckties exclusively, and he’s always gotten it right: the jacket silhouette slightly fitted; shirt point collar spread narrow so as not to overwhelm the face; pants trim, not baggy; ties skinny, as is the Don Draper-influenced fashion, but not too skinny.

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His onstage wardrobe was the perfect foil for his comedy. It was professional and polished but never distracted from his message or from his guests. His style stayed in the background but still conveyed a sense of being young and current.

Stewart, 52, is a generational hero with the kind of popularity most presidential candidates can only aspire to. He has appeared at or near the top of polls as the most trusted voice in America because of his mix of satire and sincerity, but also because of his relatable image. I'm guessing many of Stewart's young viewers looked at him and saw themselves, or how they'd want to appear if they had a platform to speak to America.

Which brings me back to the GOP candidates specifically, and Washington politicians in general -- why is the sack-like suit of the 1980s still the norm in 2015? I can imagine no bigger turnoff to a prospective voter than seeing a stage full of old-farty suits.

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore’s suit was so saggy it looked as if there was more than one of him in there. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s was a particularly untelegenic shade of undertaker gray. And the only thing more distracting than Donald Trump’s voluminous jacket sleeves was his wild gesticulating. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they were so voluminous.) As for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, I’m not sure if he was wearing a necktie or a lobster bib. The only one standing apart from the sea of sameness was Carly Fiorina, by sheer virtue of the fact that she wasn’t wearing a business-as-usual suit. 

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I'm not sure what's at the root of the great suit divide between Washington and the rest of the world. Age might have something to do with it. At 44, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was the youngest candidate on stage, and he didn't look bad, though I might have suggested a slightly narrower tie in something other than old reliable Republican red. Body type is another consideration. Most politicians don't have time for the kind of workouts required to wear the kind of second-skin suits that young Hollywood dudes favor, not that Stewart's suits were ever second-skin.

But I wonder if there is something more philosophical at work too. Maybe Graham, Gilmore, Huckabee and the rest are worried that if they appear too polished, tailored and with-it, the public will question their seriousness, their spiritual values or even their sexuality?

Much of the world has figured out that style can further substance. As the campaign heats up, it will be interesting to see if this generation of politicians, Republican and Democrat, gets onboard.

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