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Press Hails the Dress

The way the press fauned over the first lady's dress and its designer you wonder how well it'll resume its role as government watchdog.
 
 
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I've always thought that one of America's best selling points was that it never had a king. If there is one thing that defines us as a people, as opposed to all other peoples, it is this fact. Every other nation in the world has a dozen or so of those embarrassing chapters from the past to live down. Not us. The moment of our conception was a rejection of the very idea of kings. All of that goes out the window whenever we have a presidential inauguration. The urge to turn the White House into Buckingham Palace (or, more to the point, Camelot) is one of the oldest and most shameful traditions of the media age, but this disgusting phenomenon always heats to whiteness during inauguration week, regardless of what party is ascending to power. What a splendiferous reception hall! Look at all the rich and tasty things on the banquet table! Why, it must be a hundred feet long!

"Paula, set the stage from your perspective," gushed serial ass-kisser Wolf Blitzer, as he threw to Paula Zahn, standing at the inauguration site, on CNN. "This is a majestic moment for the entire country!"

We heard about all the majesty; from the scalloped crab, roasted Missouri quail, chestnuts and brined root vegetables at the post-inauguration congressional luncheon ("Mmm, scalloped crab sounds good," said CNN anchor Carol Costello) to the mariachi band, Cohiba cigars and "buffet tables loaded with Tex-Mex fare" at the "Black Tie & Boots" ball the night before ("I feel very simpatico with the people of Texas," offered shameless-hanger-on-in-a-cowboy-hat Rudy Giuliani) to the elegant inauguration lunch at Statuary Hall in the Capitol ("It's majestic," repeated the fixated Blitzer. "What a beautiful hall, for those of our viewers who have never been inside the U.S. Capitol ..."). And so on and so on. Then there was this Washington Times description of the king stepping into the courtyard to meet his subjects at the Boogie Ball:

At 9:30 p.m., Mr. Bush and his wife, first lady Laura Bush, took the stage with daughters Jenna and Barbara, and the crowd went wild. Mrs. Bush wore a rose silk taffeta Carolina Herrera ensemble with a Western touch – a full skirt and bodice resembling a button-down shirt. Jenna wore black and white, and Barbara seafoam green.

"It's nice to be home," the president told the throng. "Or as close to home as you can get in Washington."

Then, to even louder cheers, Mr. Bush said, "The best decision I ever made was asking Laura to marry me."

That Laura would be wearing a rose silk taffeta Carolina Herrera ensemble with a Western touch was known in advance. The press had been briefed. And with this news, the press ran and ran. The Queen's inauguration outfits were a story, a non-sarcastic story, in almost every paper in the country last week, to the point where Oscar de la Renta, the designer of her now-famous "ice blue" inauguration ceremony ensemble, was received by the press as though he were a visiting head of state.

Katie Couric was in the receiving line. "Many of us forget what's in the speeches, because a lot of us are focused on what the first lady is wearing," she gushed, as she introduced de la Renta on her show. "And wait no longer, this is a gown first lady Laura Bush will wear to this evening's inaugural balls. It's a silvery blue number designed by Oscar de la Renta ... ."

Introducing the designer, she said, "Hi, Oscar. May I call you Oscar?"

She asked permission, ladies and gentlemen. Oscar consented.

de la Renta then did his job. The playbook for celebrity suck-up is universal. Like Angelo Dundee dutifully telling ESPN at the premiere of Ali that Will Smith could have been a top-flight middleweight instead of an actor, de la Renta pulled out the standard pre-fight hype: Laura had the "most extraordinary sort of blue eyes I've ever seen in any lady," that blue with a little turquoise was the only possible color for such a specimen, etc., etc. But Katie just couldn't get past the name thing.

"As a designer," she began, "I have to call you Mr. de La Renta – as a designer, Mr. de La Renta..."

"No, please don't," said Caesar, refusing the crown.

"I know, but it's so weird for me, Oscar," she said. Then she added: "But, as a designer, is this really one of the most coveted assignments you can think of?"

Yes, it was, Oscar agreed. The rest of the press corps seconded the motion. The St. Petersburg Times raved over the "much-touted silvery-blue tulle dress," hyping also the other inauguration dresses designed by one Sally Jennings, who once designed a dress for Adele Graham, wife of Sen. Bob Graham. The Graham dress, the Times noted, was "a white silk chiffon dress with little triangles along the hem, a subtle clue that Adele was a Tri Delta." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution , echoing the brand-identifying sociopathy of American Psycho , noted that Laura would attack this political event by "[slipping] into custom-made Stuart Weitzman shoes: pearl gray leather D'Orsay pumps for day and silver lace pumps for night."

The New York Times , as is its wont, did not simply baldly kiss Laura's skirts, but instead deigned to draw global conclusions from her dress. In a piece that asserted that "A More Relaxed Laura Bush Shows Complexity Under Calm," the putatively serious journalist Todd Purdum wrote, "She sits on a red damask settee in the White House Map Room ... stroking Miss Beazley, her new Scottie puppy, a tiny feminine form of Roosevelt's beloved Fala. Her gray pinstripe pantsuit is soft and perfectly put together, and so is she."

Of course, once this is all over, all of these news organizations will go back to being ball-busting crusaders for truth. It only seems like they're totally enjoying this little vacation of kneeling at the altar of fabulousness and throwing rose petals at a mute Texas housewife.

Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press .