The Return of Aviator Joe

Aviator Joe is back — just in time to take his quasi-victory lap.

Forget the glowing eyes of Dark Brandon. As President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrives back in Washington, D.C., to enter the White House to sign the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, it is his Ray-Ban 3025s — the dark, wire-rimmed, teardrop-shaped sunglasses he has made his signature — that once again seem the emblem of the man.

Though the aviators and the big grin, public-service-is-cool persona they represent never exactly went away, they receded into the background, relegated mostly to bike rides and similar low-eyeball appearances as the president wrestled with Covid (policy, variants, his own case), the war in Ukraine, inflation and other grim issues. At the G7 outdoors family photo in June, he went tieless (like everyone else) and aviator-less. At the White House Easter Egg Roll, the first since the pandemic, the glasses were similarly gone.

But ever since Mr. Biden emerged from his Covid isolation into the sunshine earlier this month, the aviators have been front and center on his face: as he proclaimed his negative status in a Rose Garden speech, on his trip with the first lady to eastern Kentucky to survey the flood damage, during his vacation in South Carolina. Symbolic, once again, of a president who, as John Harwood wrote for CNN, “suddenly looks different.”

It’s the attitude as much as anything (even taking into account the glare of summer). He’s not just wearing sunglasses now. He’s wearing shades.

The president arriving in Kentucky in May.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times
President Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, surveying flood damage in Kentucky this month.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

“You know Joe Biden is having a good day when he wears his aviators,” said Lis Smith, the author of the recent book “Any Given Tuesday” and the political strategist who helped craft Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. See, for example, Mr. Biden’s appearance last April when he, Vice President Kamala Harris and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson appeared on the South Lawn after Ms. Jackson’s Senate confirmation as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

“You know he’s having a good month when you see him day after day wearing his aviators,” Ms. Smith continued. “It’s a sign he’s on a roll right now.”

That the re-emergence happened in the wake of another great aviator re-emergence and success story, that of Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick,” is probably not a coincidence. After all, as Jimmy Kimmel said when the president was his guest back in June, Mr. Biden “is to aviator sunglasses what Tom Cruise is to aviator sunglasses.” The two men — or rather their signature characters — wear the same style (albeit sometimes with different frames) and have for decades. Ever since the original “Top Gun,” back in 1986, and, according to a White House spokeswoman, since Mr. Biden was a lifeguard in college.

Mr. Biden even used his as a stand-in to herald his first Instagram post in 2014, which featured not his face but his Ray-Bans tossed on his desk. When he played himself (as VP) in a “Veep”-inspired White House correspondent’s dinner sketch that same year, he did so with his Ray-Bans, a leather jacket and his Corvette — but the glasses took center stage.

Tom Cruise returning in the summer blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick.”Credit… Paramount Pictures/Entertainment Pictures

Since Mr. Biden took office, the glasses have become part of his diplomatic gift set, presented to such political peers as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, President Yoon Suk-Yeo of South Korea (both during Mr. Biden’s Asia trip in May), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada (during the Three Amigos North American Summit in November 2021) and President Vladimir Putin of Russia (after a meeting in Geneva in 2021).

More recently, another pair of Ray-Bans helped power “Top Gun: Maverick” to the top of the box office, defied conventional wisdom that said Covid and streaming had buried the summer blockbuster, and played an integral part in a story featuring an aging but even more effective hero. Someone all the better for all his experience. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

They represent, “I’m a cool guy, but I’m a responsible person, and I’m going to wave the American flag and save you,” said Tammy Haddad, a consultant on “Veep” and the founder and chief executive of Haddad Media. It’s a familiar, comfortable semiology, which harks back to the myths of the silent generation, and the promise of Mr. Biden.

“People loved seeing Cruise in his aviators again, and responded,” Ms. Haddad said. “The president is following the same path hoping for the same results.”

Especially given the narrative of achievement, and continued vigor the West Wing is trying to convey (“continued vigor” being pretty much a synonym for “Tom Cruise”). As a style, aviators are, GQ declared, “ageless and eternal.”

President Biden and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on the South Lawn after her confirmation in April.Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

That may seem reductive and superficial, but it’s also part of how we interpret the world. We have been bathed in the increasing osmosis between Hollywood, social media and politics for the last six years, going back to the reality TV of the Trump administration and culminating in the dramatic arc of the recent Jan. 6 congressional hearings, produced by James Goldston, the former president of ABC News.

After two months of seeing Mr. Cruise’s giant grin under his Ray-Bans in ads and posters, and being inundated with headlines and tweets proclaiming his superpowers, there’s an almost Pavlovian reaction to seeing the same glasses on Mr. Biden. Such images push our subliminal buttons and play on associations, whether we are aware of it or not. It’s basic human psychology.

It’s not, Ms. Smith said, that they are a “prop,” but that they are a genuine expression of a certain archetype. “It’s vintage Joe Biden,” she said.

Besides, what better way, really, for anyone to suggest they are flying high?

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