With the presidential campaign under way about six months earlier than usual, it would have been nice if the press could have delayed the inevitable deluge of inanity that the season brings. But no, we’ve already had to endure wall-to-wall coverage of such weighty storylines as “Is Obama black enough?” and Ann Coulter’s “schoolyard taunt” of John Edwards. On The Situation Room Friday evening, CNN tossed another nugget of idiocy up for consideration: Is Edwards too good-looking to be president?


Forget the simplistic queries over whether America is ready for the slew of possible firsts the ‘08 field offers, from first woman president to “the first thrice-married man”: CNN was ready to indirectly engage in some vague “mudslinging” on the subject of Edwards’s square jaw and boyish charm.


While presidential politics are often ugly, “usually it’s not over a candidate’s good looks,” said Wolf Blitzer, who asserted that this campaign “is going down that road, and one Democrat in particular is taking the hit.” Blitzer turned to Carol Costello, who noted “it’s sad how much looks play a part in this election” (though not sad enough for CNN to refrain from amplifying the same): “Some say Hillary Clinton needs to be softer, and Bill Richardson needs to be more charismatic. As for John Edwards, there is an orchestrated campaign.”


Saying that “the politics of pretty” has “dogged” Edwards since 2004 (again, no inkling that CNN understands its role in all of this!), Costello added, “Now that he’s front and center and looking fabulous in a laid-back Gap kind of way, it’s paved the way for his political enemies to brand him the equivalent of a dumb blonde” — and for CNN to help in said branding. As evidence Costello pointed first to Rush Limbaugh — on his Web site Rush has given the former North Carolina senator a wig, “and Limbaugh often refers to him in feminine terms,” such as “the Breck Girl” — and then to Coulter’s “now-infamous Edwards slur,” which “Some say … was meant to further feminize Edwards, to make him appear weak.”


That was the gist of the “orchestrated campaign,” but CNN had some more gems to impart. Costello suggested that picking on Edwards for his looks might be “unfair” — that was the closest this segment came to reflection — but, she emphasized, “ugly partisan politics aside, good looks can work against you.” (A political analyst noted that “The last really cute president” was JFK, with nary a “stud” since.) And Obama and Mitt Romney are affected by “the pretty problem, too”; to support the latter, Costello relied on a fresh Blitzer interview in which Donald Trump, judging Romney’s candidacy, said he was a “very attractive guy.” (For the record, using Trump, whose absurd swooshes of hair plastered over his ears have been making people wince for years, as an arbiter of style should be a clear-cut violation of journalistic ethics.)


But Edwards was the central figure being tagged with this particular convoluted “brand of ugliness,” without any comment from his campaign, in a segment that — however dumb or “fun” — played right into Republicans’ hands.


“As for why neocons would pick on John Edwards, well, one pundit says some believe Edwards is the guy who will eventually move to the head of the pack, and this is the strategy they’re using to cut him down early,” Costello relayed in conclusion.


The strategy seems pretty effective. Thanks, CNN.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.