Clinton’s Leg-acy: “Unsightly Man-Calf”

Tip to politicians and other public figures: want to distract at least some media types from talking too much about timely topics? Show some leg.

Tip to politicians and other public figures: want to distract at least some media types from talking too much about timely topics? Show some leg.

It worked for Katie Couric (television reviewers noted the fact that Couric’s legs were visible during her debut on the CBS Evening News nearly as often as they did the substance — and occasional lack of it — on her broadcast). And this week, it’s working for (or, depending on your outlook, against) Bill Clinton.

On Sunday, former President Clinton gave an interview on Fox News during which he sparred with Chris Wallace about his administration’s efforts to fight terrorism, and during which Clinton’s bare legs were, apparently, peaking out from the ends of his trousers. Monday morning, Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus were blathering on about Clinton’s “distracting” and “disconcerting” leg-flashing. Later that day Nora Ephron blogged on, “Was there no one there to see that [Clinton’s] pants were hiked up too high and his socks were pulled down too low and the flesh on his legs was showing?” — comments which CNN later reported on (two days in a row). MSNBC chimed in a day later (on-screen caption: “Sock It To Me: Bill Clinton Shows a Little Leg During Fox Interview”), quizzing two talking heads about Clinton’s short socks, a scandal which by then had made its way into print.

So with SocksGate, we see a classic echo chamber trajectory, in which something trivial and/or misleading bounces from talk radio and blogs to cable news and beyond.

Clearly, Clinton’s sock selection was important to some in the media. But why, precisely, did it matter?

According to Rush Limbaugh: “We’re talking about a former president. It’s really bad form to wear socks that are too short when you’re sitting down and your slacks are a little high on your calf up there …” Moreover, Limbaugh found “distracting” Clinton’s “pasty white ankles and thighs” (er, only Clinton’s mid-calves were visible; what Clinton’s thighs look like, only Limbaugh’s imagination knows).

Fellow radio talker Don Imus, while chatting Monday morning with Jon Meacham of Newsweek, said he found it “troubling” and “disconcerting” that Clinton’s “pants are too short and he does not wear the right kind of dress socks,” given that “there are dress socks you can get that go right up to your knee” (“I wear those, I wear those,” noted Meacham).

Why did Nora Ephron lead (and conclude) with Clinton’s socks on Well, it was “what surprised [Ephron] most” about the Clinton interview — a reaction which CNN found newsworthy in and of itself. During Anderson Cooper 360 Monday night (and again on Your World Today Tuesday), CNN’s Jeanne Moos mentioned Ephron’s comments and added, “[Ephron’s] right. Look at all the exposed skin for an interviewer to get under.” (Protecting, perhaps, his well-hyped cred, Cooper retorted, “I didn’t notice the socks.”)

And then there was MSNBC which, yesterday afternoon, devoted several minutes to SocksGate. MSNBC Live anchor Contessa Brewer lured viewers in with the following teaser: “When we come back, we’re going to talk about Bill Clinton’s socks. Not the cat, but his socks and, more importantly, the leg President Clinton was showing during the [Fox] interview and why someone didn’t tell him to pull his pants down, or no no, pull his socks up.” No word about why this was important — important enough to call upon two experts. “How does this happen? I mean, is this a travesty or what?” Brewer asked “Democratic strategist” Julian Epstein. Epstein’s expert analysis? “I think what Clinton was doing with this was [showing] that he, in fact, had more skin in the game when it came to fighting terrorism.” MSNBC’s other expert — former Bush/Cheney adviser Ron Christie — chimed in: “I do have longer socks on, almost up to the knee. You don’t have to worry about any leg showing here.” Brewer, relieved because she “prefer[s] modesty in [her] interviewees,” went on to opine: “If I had been doing that interview, I’ve got to say, I would just say, ‘Oh, Mr. President, your leg is showing …’ It’s sort of like telling someone they have spinach in their teeth. Come on, it’s not cool to let someone go around with spinach in their teeth. Same thing with leg showing.”

Concurring on the “not cool” point yesterday was Margery Eagan of the Boston Herald, who wrote: “Bill’s only misstep: how come nobody told him his pants were riding up, revealing that unsightly man-calf between socks and slacks?”

What can we take away from SocksGate — apart from the happy knowledge that Newsweek’s managing editor wears knee-high dress socks? Perhaps Senator George Allen should consider appearing bare-ankled on Larry King Live.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.