The digs aren’t all subtle, either. Take, for example, The New York Times’s June 2007 front-page exploration of Edwards’s alleged use of the nonprofit organizations he founded, with “the stated mission of fighting poverty,” merely “to keep alive his public profile” between 2004 and now. The piece carries the moralistic tone of investigative indictment while revealing no real wrongdoing on Edwards’s part. Its “gotcha!” stance allows, apparently, only brief (and buried) mention of the obvious: that Edwards’s organizations were founded to raise awareness about poverty, and the money spent “on himself” was allowing him—by traveling to speaking engagements and conducting meetings with policy experts—to do just that. Is this really the stuff of front-page political scandal?
More worthy of A1 treatment is Edwards’s involvement, as both an adviser and investor, with Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund with ties to companies that have apparently engaged in the predatory lending practices Edwards has, as an advocate of the poor, vehemently decried. The story is developing; it’s still unclear whether it reveals hypocrisy or ignorance on Edwards’s part. Here’s an instance, though, in which Edwards actually might deserve being branded with a scarlet H—and which, regardless, certainly deserves media attention. According to Nexis, there have been 107 articles mentioning Fortress since early May, when the story broke. So, great.
Yet not so great in light of the fact that, since May, there have been nearly four times—387—the number of references to The Coif Heard Round the World: Edwards’s series of expensive haircuts that had the media all abuzz, if you will, back in April and, since then, “just won’t stay out of the news.” (The number of stories that mention Edwards’s hair jumps to 455 when the search is expanded to April 17, the day the so-called story broke.) “Looking pretty is costing John Edwards’ presidential campaign a lot of pennies,” scoffed the AP, citing two $400 haircuts “by celebrity stylist Joseph Torrenueva of Beverly Hills” and trips to a “trendy spa in Dubuque, Iowa” and a New Hampshire “‘boutique for the mind, body and face’ that caters mostly to women.”
If there was any story to be found in all this, it was certainly not Edwards’s “beautiful and silkily wonderful hair” (thanks for that one, Pajamas Media), but rather the fact that the candidate paid for its styling out of campaign funds and was naïve enough to report the expenditures to the FEC (which many candidates simply don’t—or, if they do, they conveniently classify those costs as “media production expenses”). But, you know, snooze. So, instead, we got widespread vilification of 2004’s “Breck girl” for being too much of a “political pretty boy.” Jim Miklaszewski, NBC’s chief Pentagon correspondent, called Edwards a “loser” not for the cut itself, but for defending it (“the unkindest cut of all,” Shakespeare might say). An only slightly more charitable Andrea Mitchell, pundit-ing with Chris Matthews, managed at once to reduce and aggrandize Haircutgate by framing it as an Authenticity Thing:
MATTHEWS: You guys jumped around for a week about poor, what’s his name, John Edwards’ haircut, you know. Cosmetics are a part of this game.
MITCHELL: That wasn’t cosmetics.
MATTHEWS: What was that then?
MITCHELL: That was authenticity.
A $400 haircut is ridiculous, sure—but does it really get down to authenticity itself? Might it be a tad hypocritical of the media to insist on the beauty-pageantification of politics, and then vilify a candidate for playing by the rules they set? And is it really fair to suggest, as Maureen Dowd did, that Torrenueva’s infamous shears have snipped Edwards’s presidential chances as surely as they did his famous tresses? (And not to be, well, snippy, but Edwards’s fellow tax-bracketeer, Mitt Romney, spent $300 on makeup this May. How much press coverage did that get?)
One has to wonder where all this seemingly myopic antipathy is coming from. Perhaps it’s a matter of history—an acknowledgment that, while Clinton and Obama both offer monumental Firsts in their candidacies, an Edwards nomination would be business as usual. Or perhaps it’s that Edwards, running for the second time, already had his Life Story told in back in ‘04—and the necessity of keeping stories fresh has made reporters resort to finding their requisite newness in the negative. Or perhaps the media have something personal at stake in vilifying Edwards and making him, as The Washington Post had it, “unusually susceptible to mockery.” After all, the MSM have faced their own accusations of vanity/hypocrisy/elitism; indicting the self-styledly populist candidate for not being populist enough has the convenient consequence of aligning the press with the working man—and, thus, away from The Man.