Your bolo tie won’t get you into Heaven, but it will get you through the doors of the House

March 25, 2021 5:51 am

Photo illustration of ties (Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of the most poignant songs John Prine wrote (and there’s plenty of competition for that) had the chorus: “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”

The anti-war anthem suggested that just waving a flag isn’t sufficient justification for killing or war.

The idea is simple: Plastering a flag decal on your bumper doesn’t guarantee your patriotism because action, words and ideas are a much better measuring stick for that.

Some Montana legislators still don’t quite get it, though. To wit: The House’s recent resurrection of a debate on dress codes. Montanans rolled their eyes a week ago as lawmakers met in a late-afternoon session to discuss the intricacies of the dress code. Meanwhile, bills as far ranging as the budget to marijuana to healthcare, were waiting. Some Republicans thought the exercise was a waste of time, and Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said exactly that.

Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, drew the ire of a handful of Republicans. His brazen disregard was simply not wearing a tie.

So offended by his lack of neckwear was Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, that he walked out of a meeting where Tenenbaum was testifying.

It was a nice change of pace to see a man’s fashion decisions questioned instead of a woman.

Legislatures of not too long ago had wanted to ban yoga pants among women. Then there was recently a discussion about the necklines of women’s shirts being too distracting. I’ll spare everyone the discourse on how amazing that debate became because it managed to be offensive to both men and women simultaneously. Men, because it made them seem totally unable to control their thoughts or urges around women who dared demonstrate they have skin beneath the neck; and it did a pretty good job of insulting women by suggesting they were to blame for any attention they receive from ogling men who couldn’t hold their urges in check.

I agree with Republicans: There should be some rules governing attire, procedure and decorum. However, those rules should be maintained in order to minimize distraction and reflect the people they represent. No one has ever been distracted by a tie, and most Montanans feel more comfortable in jeans and baseball cap.

And, I also believe that people who dress in a suit or tie may be taken more seriously — whether fair or not. It’s a time-honored strategy I learned from years as court reporter watching people look sharp for a criminal hearing. Lawmakers ought to give the average Montanan more credit for knowing when to polish your boots, so to speak.

I also appreciate ties. I have a collection of more than 400 ties. I am in no way offended by someone who doesn’t like them. Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, has a point – they constrict your neck, especially when it’s as … uh… jowly as mine. It’s a personal preference, and it’s amazing to me to that in this stiff-necked, ruggedly individualized state that these same leaders in this one narrow instance want strict conformity. Seems distinctly un-Montanan.

And, if the House Rules Committee really wanted to discuss something of substance, it would take up the debate as to whether bolo ties really count as ties. I, for one, am a hard no on that, for the same reason that a scarf is not a belt.

However, the dress code continues to be used as a device to thump on people of lesser power – to let them know their place. It is the antithesis of being Montana, where we pride ourselves on knowing our senators by name, and probably the governor, too. Instead, women who would dare appear as strong and confident as men get tsk-tsking about necklines. Men whose logic and legislation cannot be beaten by a superior political argument are ignored because they’re not wearing a tie.

Laws aren’t written better with a tie (and for the record, every time I have covered Tenenbaum, he is always in a jacket). Instead, the dress code debate has always been a distraction, and its purpose more about punishment than doing the best job. It’s about reminding people who has control.

As an editor of a small daily paper in Minnesota, I once had a man come in, asking to speak to the editor. His hands were as big as meat hooks, and he was angry. He was a farmer and the city had taken out several pages in the paper to print delinquent water bill customers. Guess who was on the list?

I came to the front counter, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans.

“You the editor,” he asked.

I replied I was.

“Well, you don’t look like an editor,” he said.

At that moment, he expected a dude in a suit with a tie. I got his point: You don’t want your surgeon looking like he just rolled in from a day at the beach, and you don’t want your editor looking like he’s window shopping in a mall.

However, there’s a big difference between dressing appropriately and regulating necklines, and walking out on someone who is not wearing a tie. At that point, the conversation switches from one of respect to one of disrespect and humiliation.

With just 90 days allotted to lawmakers through our much-invoked and revered state Constitution, time is too precious to debate neckwear when families are still struggling through a pandemic.

I’d point out that neither Jesus nor the Founding Fathers would be allowed on either Chamber floor due to dress codes, but that’s more of an anachronism because ties weren’t invented or in style. Yet, the thoughts espoused by both Jesus and the founders are still powerful not because of what those men wore, but the ideas they espoused. I would suggest that if the leaders of the Legislature, who often invoke both Jesus and the inspired Founding Fathers, are passionate enough to follow the words and ideas of these men that they would overlook their dress, then maybe it’s time to extend the same courtesy to those whose clothing habits are different but every bit as sincere.

If John Prine is right: That just wrapping yourself in the cloak of the flag won’t be enough of an explanation to justify war or killing others, then hiding behind dress codes should not be enough of a shield to discount or punish lawmakers with whom you don’t agree.

That bolo tie may get you into the House, but it’s not going to get you into heaven, folks.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.