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Hat in Hand A personal essay by Matt Stone

When I worked at the White House, they gave me a hat, colored both by better times and a brilliant baby blue. On the crown of the cap was a logo, six-words tall —

WHITE

HOUSE

EASTER

EGG

ROLL

2016

— and on top of the “WHITE,” a running rabbit, hind legs kicking off the “W,” body stretched over the “E.”

The hats were distributed that day by hundreds of volunteers, wearing bunny-branded, cream-colored aprons, to as many people as possible out of the 30,000 who visited the South Lawn — the lawn with the great green field, adorned with thick shrubs and tall trees whose very names bear majesty (American elm, Atlas cedar) forming two files of trunks that flank the White House, extending toward the East Wing and the West, then cutting inward, just slightly, just enough to shroud the sides of the residence and enlarge the center, the portico itself: six mighty columns, doming outward, that make and mark and carry history — that hold, that make whole, this American palace.

It was a good day. Beyoncé and Jay-Z romped the lawn with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Idina Menzel, who voiced Elsa from “Frozen,” sang “Let It Go.” Little kids, chased by Powerpuff Girls and the Easter Bunny, whacked little wooden eggs with little wooden spoons, laughing and screaming before they barreled over each other onto the grass or, on one occasion, Bugs Bunny’s plush foot. My boss, a White House speechwriter, played one-on-one against Shaq and walked away with a sprained ankle. (Did you know it’s possible to strut with a sprained ankle?)

As his intern, I volunteered at the event. And I walked away with a hat.

A lot of people that day walked away with hats. Because Obama worked to make the White House “the people’s house,” my office worked in turn to make that White House hat “the people’s hat.” That’s because the team looked like and responded to the country it served: a group of staffers for every major ethnic- or issue-based constituency in the country, from Native Americans and Wounded Warriors to African-Americans, Americans with disabilities and those affected by policies concerning pay equity, criminal justice, immigration and health care.

We gave White House Easter Egg Roll tickets to advocates and leaders, to change-makers and celebrities, to ordinary people from every background. They gathered under a blue sky on a green field with a black president beneath a red, white and blue flag. Baby-blue hats for all, made in America. Hats off to the commander in chief.

With the White House name, the hat bore an aura. With the bunny, a humility, a capacity to be childlike but not childish. With the “Made in America” tag on the back, a commitment to country, to principle. A hat modeled on the president whose administration created it.

Except the president didn’t wear it. Obama was a man with clear-cut policies and principles, and these applied, too, to his opinions on hats. It was true that he was part of a lineage of great leaders who donned them. For Abraham Lincoln, a top hat. Lyndon Johnson and his Stetson. Ronald Reagan and his white cowboy hat. But Obama understood that those hat-wearing heads of state were the exception, not the norm.

Even Richard Nixon knew it was the line a commander in chief should never cross. His manual for travel staffers included the following reminder: “The 37th President of the United States of America never wears hats,” listing 22 examples from “‘it’s the custom’ hats” to “hard hats” and “beanies.” “Hats are toxic,” the manual concluded, “and can kill you.”

The most famous fatality came in 1988, when a young Obama and the rest of the country watched with head in hand as then–Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis found a way to sink into a tank and sink into a helmet and sink in the polls at the same time, looking as mighty as Marvin the Martian and forever becoming the world’s worst photo op.

“Here’s a general rule,” a grinning Obama told the Navy football team, as he kept the helmet that they gave him in his hands rather than on his head. “You don’t put stuff on your head if you’re president. That’s politics 101.”

Everyone in East Room laughed. The Navy too. Obama, of course, was right.

Only then he wasn’t right.

And what was once right became far-right, a right that came in an excess of fury. Four months after the Easter Egg Roll, the Republican National Convention arrived in Cleveland, where rows of American elms became rows of American flags, flanked by golden walls and a golden podium all spread beneath a megascreen that domed outward—but, instead of six columns, it bore five letters: “TRUMP.”

Instead of hats colored baby blue, there was a sea of red, with text that wasn’t orderly so much as it ordered — font that was bold and oversized, that screamed and simplified. A hat that was “Made in America” rather than made in America. A hat modeled on the president who created it.

***

Politics 101 has failed, and that brilliant baby blue is gone. But if history does not always operate with clear-cut policies and principles, this must apply, too, to its opinions on hats. If people adapt — if history adapts — perhaps it’s important to see that hats adapt, too.

After the catastrophic red, the Human Rights Campaign launched a “Make America Gay Again” hat. As a nod to regressive policy, an Indiegogo page raised money to produce a “Make America Great Britain Again” hat, whose proceeds go to UnidosUS, Planned Parenthood and the Council on American–Islamic Relations. From everyone's favorite Trump social media account—Alec Baldwin's Instagram—the actor posted a photo of himself wearing a hat that referenced the president's alleged co-conspirators: “сделать америки здорово снова.” (So many have asked what the president really meant by “Make America Great Again.” But the best translation is the original Russian.)

And on the day after Inauguration Day came the largest demonstration in American history — capped off with an army of pink hats, one million strong.

Credits:

White House Photo Archive

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