The New York Times
The Political Power Watch Stops Ticking by Alex Williams
"The Political Power Watch Stops Ticking Sam Brownback, the Republican governor of Kansas up for re-election on Tuesday, wears a steel Timex with a black leather band. Bob Beauprez, the Republican challenger for Colorado governor, stumps in a cheap Waltham watch he bought for his father around 1970. Fred DuVal, a Democrat running for Arizona governor, opts for a hand-me-down Bulova Caravelle that may cost less than $100 new.
The conspicuous lack of luxury timepieces in this year’s midterm election cycle is in line with current trends in American political wrist armor.President Obama routinely poses at photo ops with sleeves rolled, flexing a Jorg Gray JG6500 series chronograph that could pass as an altimeter from a Boeing 767, and retails for less than $400 — roughly one-thousandth the cost of the $540,000 Vacheron Constantin of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire former prime minister.
What ever happened to the wristwatch befitting a world leader?
Consider that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the sartorial equivalent of oyster crackers, appeared on a 1952 cover of Life magazine wearing an 18-karat gold Rolex Datejust that nowadays would look flashy on a Maserati-driving Miami timeshare broker.
CreditRenaud Giroux/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The political power watch — a subtle yet potent symbol of leadership, with deep roots in American politics — has been redefined. In an era when any hint of elitism is the third rail of modern statecraft, and even the tiniest fashion faux pas (see: Mr. Obama’s “dad jeans”) is dissected mercilessly, most office holders, in the United States anyway, seem unwilling to risk C.E.O.-level timepieces that were once the birthright of the ruling class.
For the contemporary technocrat, the timepiece art-object has been replaced by an Everyman tool that sends a more politically palatable message: youth, fitness, fiscal prudence. Think of them as running shoes for the wrist.
“Expensive watches have been a casualty of Washington, D.C.'s, obsession with optics, and a shift in what politicians and campaign strategists believe the American people want in their elected leaders,” said Will Welch, the style editor of GQ. “No matter what a politician’s biography, business record or tax returns may say, the accepted wisdom is that a politician has got to look the part of an average American. Not too stylish. Not too privileged. Definitely not so clueless as to wear the entire incomes of a lot of American families on a single wrist.”
Such is the no-frills state of horology in the political sphere that Bob McDonnell, the former Virginia governor convicted in federal court on 11 counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion in September, seemed to distance himself from not just a gifted Rolex, but the very idea of a Rolex.
“It was big, gaudy, just too big,” Mr. McDonnell testified in court in August, referring to the Swiss timepiece that he said his wife gave him for Christmas, but was said to be paid for by a local businessman, as reported by Politico. The governor, who later returned the watch, said he always preferred inexpensive, utilitarian brands. “As long as it was accurate — everyone knows I’m always on time,” he added.
With his testimony, Mr. McDonnell hit the cheap-watch exacta for the modern elected official. “Politicians wear a cheap watch both as a way to show they are a no-frills non-elitist and also to subliminally convey that they value time, meaning that they would be good managers,” said Eric Wind, a writer for the popular watch-enthusiast site Hodinkee, who deconstructed the watch choices of American presidents earlier this year.
While it may seem trivial to analyze an elected leader’s wrist instead of, say, his stance on health care, the wristwatch is a talisman, at least for male politicians, who are generally locked into to a uniform of blue suits and party-appropriate red or blue ties, with few other opportunities to express personal style.
And it would be naïve to assume that no one is paying attention.
President Obama’s left wrist has been in the spotlight since he entered the political stratosphere. Bloggers hailed his choice of an old TAG Heuer 1500 — a rugged diver’s watch favored by middle managers — earlier in his career. “Many watch admirers appreciated that he seemed to wear something of a ‘beater’ on his wrist, as it projected a good work ethic,” wroteThe Escapement, a watch blog, in 2009.
It is not just horology geeks taking note. After the president took office wearing his new Jorg Gray, a birthday gift from his security detail, The Chicago Tribune noted that “a man’s watch is the equivalent of a woman’s handbag: often scrutinized, sometimes coveted. So when the left-handed president signed documents on Day 1 of his presidency, many noticed his black chronograph with a Secret Service seal, in place of the Tag Heuer he often wears.
Often, the wristwatch serves to underscore a politician’s perceived strengths. Mr. Brownback’s simple Timex, for instance, quietly advertises his role as a no-nonsense fiscal conservative.
But just as often, a strategic choice shores up a perceived weakness.
With its he-man, commando air, the president’s Jorg Gray hinted that a bookish Ivy Leaguer who had never awakened to reveille was ready to assume duties as commander in chief.
George W. Bush struggled with a Yale party boy image, so a drugstore Timex helped to offset his custom suits. During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney seemed to lean on his modest Seiko as a rebranding tool, to counter perceptions that he was an out-of-touch corner-office type with a $200 million fortune.
Then there was Bill Clinton, whose cheeseburger eruptions were dissected nearly as much as his bimbo eruptions during his 1992 presidential run, proudly displayed a jogger-friendly plastic Timex Ironman. Though it was derided as a “wrist gargoyle” by The Washington Post, it was the symbol of Bubba, born again hard.
There was a time, however, when cheap chic was a foreign concept to statesmen. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal, wore a gold Tiffany-signed Movado triple calendar with no apparent shame. Another populist of plutocrat origins, John F. Kennedy, counted among his collection a Cartier and a dainty gold Omega, according to Hodinkee.
Lyndon B. Johnson, father of the Great Society, owned a quiver of fine Swiss watches, including a Patek Philippe, a Vulcain Cricket (a presidential staple), a LeCoultre and a Rolex. Even Fidel Castro, a leader with class sensitivities if there ever was one, at times wore two Rolexes on the same wrist.
(Watch geeks have failed to identify the watch George H. W. Bush infamously kept checking during a 1992 presidential debate, although he was known to favor a striped grosgrain strap, a staple of the Eastern elite straight out of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Mr. Wind said.)
The mid-20th century, in fact, was a more stately time when politicians, particularly presidents, “presented themselves as men who ordinary citizens could aspire to be: accomplished, glamorous, stylish, classy and wealthy without being gaudy,” Mr. Welch said. “So the shift in watch preferences is a tidy metaphor for the larger philosophical change about what a politician should be, what the American people want.”
To date, the phenomenon seems largely an American one. In Russia, for instance, Vladimir V. Putin has reportedly amassed a watch collection worth nearly $700,000. “I guess if you feel assured of the popular vote,” said Style.com’s editor in chief, Dirk Standen, “you can wear whatever watch you please.”