On his way to a truly spectacular and ignominious flame-out, John Edwards seems to have left at least one political legacy: an abiding media interest in three-figure haircuts for politicians.
At least, that’s the conclusion I’m drawing from the headline McClatchy’s DC bureau put on the latest Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times story about Marco Rubio’s use of a GOP credit card during his stint as speaker of the Florida House. The story itself is a tough, thorough piece that raises what seem to be real questions about the actions of Rubio and other top party officials. For example: when Rubio’s family minivan was damaged at a political event, the party paid not only for half of his insurance deductible, but also for a five-week car rental that cost nearly $3,000.
The McClatchy headline, though, targets a different detail, and one that gets only a brief mention in the story: “Rubio’s charges to GOP credit card included $134 haircut.” Given that the party reportedly picked up more than $93,000 in charges on Rubio’s card—some party-related, others less so—over two years, that’s small potatoes. And it’s made even smaller because it appears from the story that the haircut’s cost was among more than $16,000 in personal charges that Rubio repaid. (He benefited, of course, from having the party carry the cost for a time—but still, isn’t the more important material the personal stuff he didn’t eventually pay for?)
The focus on pricey haircuts, of course, isn’t really about ethics at all—it’s about puncturing politicians’ attempts to present themselves as “of the people,” and casting them instead as effete elites. That angle can produce some snarky fun, but ultimately it reinforces an approach to politics that emphasizes politicians’ attributes over their actions or their agendas. And, in its faux-naïveté, it’s both cynical and silly. Everything we know from both anecdotal observation and an understanding of the way our system is structured suggests that high-profile politicians are likely to be both vain and wealthy. They also, for good reason, are attentive to their public appearance. Given all those factors, and the fact that Miami is an expensive place to live, the cost of Rubio’s trim is pretty unsurprising, and shouldn’t be all that damning. The newsworthy material here is “charges to the GOP credit card,” not “$134 haircut.”
For what it’s worth, the Web sites for the local papers went with a different approach: “Marco Rubio case renews spending outcry,” reads the headline on the Herald’s site. But don’t give them too much credit for staying above the snark: a recent post at the Times’s political blog noted that the barber shop where the bill was incurred offers an array of services, and asks the salient questions about which one Rubio actually purchased: “Was it mani-pedi? Moisturizing treatment?” The answer, we learn, is “unclear.”