Love, Shakespeare wrote, “is an ever-fixèd mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” True—except when the love in question comes from the press, and the tempests it looks on are confined to the teapot of presidential politics. In which case the mark of love is, well, never-fixèd.
Among the recent fields of Democrats alone, we’ve seen the fickleness of press/would-be-prez romances in an appropriately tumultuous array: Love at First Sight That Left as Quickly as It Came (Howard Dean); Friendship That Might Have Been Something More But Then Swiftly Soured (John Kerry); The One That Got Away (Al Gore). While the media have mocked and otherwise mistreated many of their erstwhile suitors, John Edwards managed to exit the 2004 election with few permanent scars, save for his enduring reputation as a Pretty Boy. Though he wasn’t The One for ’04—and though the press’s relationship with him certainly wasn’t all sunshine and roses—he had a shot, one thought, for ’08.
But the course of true love never did run smooth, and many in the media—mainstream and blogospheric alike—are now writing Edwards off, quite literally, through an extensive and somewhat awkward “Dear John” letter:
“Dear John, Things might have lasted, had you not been so calculating or attention-seeking or “metrosexual” or flip-flopping or “opulent” in your lifestyle or full of “craven ambition” or obsessively focused on your image or prone to biting the hand that feeds you or overshadowed by your wife or reminiscent of Howard Dean or “white,” “male,” “liberal,” “clean-cut,” and “well-to-do.” However pretty you may be, and however much your “smooth voice may drip with Southern charm,” it’s just not working out between us. Sorry.”
This media missive has, at times, exhibited a nearly Shakespearian delicacy, expressing its distaste not through declaration, but through the time-honored language of love-soon-to-be-lost: subtle—some might call it passive-aggressive—insinuation. It’s referring not simply to Edwards’s North Carolina home, but rather to his “28,000-square-foot pleasure palace.” It’s inserting, in can’t-miss-it irony between two grafs about Edwards’s expensive hair-grooming, the fact that “Mr. Edwards has presented himself in the Democratic field as an advocate of working-class Americans, lamenting the nation’s growing economic disparity.” It’s noting that, while Edwards “doesn’t accept money directly from federal lobbyists”—this deserves emphasis—“he is not above benefiting from the broader lobbying community.” It’s depicting Edwards, in an article about campaign-trail parenting rife with criticisms of the candidate, “dragging” his family “through thousands of miles and stump speeches.” It’s spreading the suggestion (courtesy of Rush Limbaugh, no less) that Edwards, in continuing his campaign despite the return of Elizabeth’s cancer, has been merely “trolling for sympathy votes.”
And it’s generally portraying Edwards as a kind of Cinderella-and-the-Prince-rolled-into-one, a composite caricature whose inherent contradictions suggest inauthenticity at best, hypocrisy at worst. “Edwards has been unable to make much headway,” wrote the The Washington Post, “in part because of a series of controversies that cast doubt on the image he has cultivated as a millionaire lawyer who as the son of a millworker understands the plight of those with less than he has.”
Except, of course, it’s not only Edwards who has cultivated that image; the media have, as well. Nearly all the current candidates, Democratic and Republican alike, are millionaires (lawyers, too); Edwards is the only one for whom that’s A Thing. While not all press coverage uses the loaded H-word in reporting on the Edwards campaign’s “controversies” (namely, House, Hedgefund, and Hair), much of it implies hypocrisy through the millionaire/millworker dichotomy itself, fusing those supposedly rival narratives into a virulent, and increasingly prevalent, logic: Edwards is rich, but says he wants to help the poor. He must therefore be a hypocrite.
The fallacy of that reasoning, not to mention the utterness of its unfairness, are obvious. Less obvious are the effects its viral nature will have on the campaign as it moves into the make-or-break time of primary season. It’s fairly safe to assume, however, that coverage that insists on weaving even the tiniest campaign missteps into the woolly text of a Hypocrisy Narrative will register, for Edwards, somewhere between “problematic” and “disastrous”—and that it will continue to overshadow the balanced articles (the recent Time magazine profile of Edwards, for example, which explains the campaign’s snafus without imbuing them with the weight of moral allusion) that have been written about the candidate.