Plain like Barack

As befits a Quaker witness, when I felt the nudge to plainness ten years ago, I didn’t quite know where it would take me. I trusted the spiritual nudges enough to assume there were lessons to learn. I had witnessed a God-centering in others who shared my spiritual conditions and I knew from reading that plainness was a typical first step of “infant ministers.” But all I had been given was the invitation to walk a particular path.

After the initial excitements, I settled into a routine and discovered I had lost the “what to wear?!” angst of getting dressed in the mornings. Gone too was the “who am I?” drama that accompanied catalog browsing. As clothes wore out and were retired, I reduced my closet down to a small set of choices, all variations on one another. Now when I get dressed I don’t worry about who I will see that day, who I should impress, whether one pair of shoes goes with a certain sweater, etc.

Apparently, I share this practice with the forty-fourth president. In “Obama’s Way,” a wide-ranging profile in Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis shares the President’s attitude about clothes:

[He] was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence… You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

A few distracting caveats: we can assume Obama’s grey and blue suits are bespoke and cost upwards of a thousand dollars apiece. He probably has a closet full of them. He has staff that cleans them, stores them, and lays them out for him in the morning. You won’t find Barack wandering the aisles of the Capitol Hill Macy’s or the Langley Hill Men’s Warehouse. Michelle’s never running things to the dry cleaners, and Sasha and Malia aren’t pairing socks from the laundry bin after coming home from school. A President Romney’s closet would also feature gray and blue (though his underwear drawer would be more unconventional). When protocol calls for the commander-in-chief to deviate from suits–to don a tux perhaps–one appears. Presidential plainness is far from simple.

The Quaker movement started as an invitation to common sense. Everyone could join. Early Friends were minimalists on fire, fearless in abandoning anything that got in the way of spiritual truth. In a few short years they methodically worked their way to the same conclusions as a twenty-first century U.S. president: human decision-making resources are finite; our attention is at a premium. If we have a job to do (run a country, witness God’s Kingdom), then we should clear ourselves of unnecessary distractions to focus on the essentials. Those core experiential truths have lasting value. As Jefferson might say, they are self-evident, even if they still seem radically peculiar to the wider world.

Unfortunately the kind of plainness that Barack and I are talking about is a kind of mind-hack, its power largely strategic. I’d love to see a president take up the challenge of some hardcore Quaker values. How about the testimony against war? Eliza Gurney got pretty far in correspondence with Obama’s hero, honest Abe, but even he punted responsibility to divine will. The witness continues.

  • Eileen Flanagan

    I have repeated the story about the suits several times since hearing the article’s author on Fresh Air. It reminds me of a very well-written and interesting book called The Art of Choosing, which also suggested that our minds need to pair down choices. After buying a new house that needed a lot of work several months ago, I find I am just worn out from choosing which home improvement project to do first, when and who to hire, what kind of windows to get, what color to paint the trim, etc. I’m wanting to go on a choice fast or at least a choice diet so that my mind can center on things that are really important. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • Martin Kelley

      I didn’t know Lewis was on Fresh Air, I should look that up, thanks. I’m actually still working through the Vanity Fair article.