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.
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.
Or maybe—the simplest answer—Edwards really is the hypocritical, power-hungry creep many in the media are suggesting he is. That could be; it wouldn’t be the first time such a character has run for president. And there might be something to the Fortress story. But the press has been scrawling its “Dear John” letter long before that story broke, and it’s still unclear exactly why: None of Edwards’s missteps, which are inevitable in campaigns that marry political pageantry and media scrutiny, seems so far to have warranted the vitriol he’s received. If the fling with Edwards is over, we in the media need to make it clear—not implicitly, but explicitly—why we’re calling for the breakup. And if there’s no real evidence of Edwards’s presidential unfitness, then we need to stop suggesting it. Otherwise, the whole “it’s not you, it’s me” line might have some truth to it: the problem isn’t Edwards. It’s us.