I grew up in a strange little corner of Pennsylvania where mind-boggling generational wealth bumped right up against near-poverty. The aesthetics of the two populations were closer than you might think. I knew one guy in the area, a generation older than me, who dressed almost exclusively in dusty barn coats and dust-caked boots. He could have bought my family home ten times over, in cash, without batting an eye.
I was thinking about him this weekend, as people got increasingly bent out of shape over the subject of Joe Biden's watch, a Rolex Datejust he wore (seemingly for the first time) at his inauguration. The little corner of PA I grew up in is about 15 minutes away, just past the state border, from Jill and Joe Biden's (former) main residence in Greenville, Delaware. Throughout the area, regardless of political affiliation, blood runs blue. And there's no more time-honored tradition among old-money Americans than acting like money doesn't matter. Worse than the actual outlay of cash to fix the Volvo is looking like you spent money to fix the Volvo, which simply will not do. When it comes to getting dressed, scuffed toes on lace-ups and frayed collars on oxford cloth button-downs aren't evidence of mistreatment or laziness. They're a display. They say that while you are indeed "comfortable," you're also not fixated on the trappings of material wealth.
Of course, judging by the houses and trust funds, that's not entirely true. That's why I was pondering wealthy guys in dirty boots and all the other "I'm rich but it's not a big deal" folks who I encountered growing up when I read stories, like the now-infamous New York Times one, contextualizing Joe Biden's $7,000-plus Rolex against the supposed foils of Clinton's far-less-expensive Timex Ironman, Dubya's (also Timex) Indiglo, and even Obama's Shinola. Those former watches were symbols of an everyman appeal. You can get a beer with a guy wearing a drugstore – even a department store – watch. But a guy wearing a Rolex?
Here's the thing, though: the President is not an everyman. Yes, he's a man of the people, voted into office by them and granted power by their mandate. But that doesn't mean he's the sort of guy you'd sidle up next to at the local dive to order a sudsy Yuengling. Biden's a 78-year-old career politician. Bush was, as the Times put it, "an oil scion who went to Yale." That these guys – or Clinton, or Obama – could afford a Rolex shouldn't come as a shock. That some of them chose to wear a Timex, instead, is more telling.
Politics is theatre, and the costumes are laden with meaning. For the last few decades – excluding the last four years with Trump and his pricey haute horology, which was just as far outside the norms of the presidency as everything else he did – humble watches were a way for wealthy power brokers to say, "Hey, man. See? I'm just like you." But they weren't just like the people they were talking to; they were dressing up like it, because it was politically expedient. To suppose that the watches were simply personal choices and not devices tuned to create a specific impression is to ignore the reality that appearance means a great deal when you're sitting in the Oval Office.
But even considering the old-school preppy fixation on the threadbare, the well-worn, the cheap-but-good – all of which inform the delicate calculus of dressing for the presidency – there's something almost cynical about strapping on a cheap watch to convince voters you're one of them. It's normal-dude cosplay, and, whether you like it or not, the president is not a normal dude. Amtrak Joe is riding on Air Force 1 now. He's got a shiny new Rolex (which probably has some Delaware blue-bloods apoplectic; why couldn't he have gone vintage?!). Them's the breaks.
Kennedy wore a Rolex – the Day-Date, now nicknamed the President. Reagan, Johnson, and Eisenhower all wore Rolexes, too. There is pretty much nothing about the Americas those men presided over that I'd like to return to, except for one thing: the recognition that it's not particularly strange for the president of the United States to wear a watch that, just like the office itself, is not for everyone.
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