John Edwards' $400 Mistake

What do you think of when you hear the name John Edwards?

I was doing a forum with my friend and FOX colleague Rich Lowry last night at the University of Richmond, and the ever-gracious editor of the National Review was his usual gracious self when it came to answering questions about what he saw as the strengths of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

But when the topic turned to the former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee, he couldn’t resist. I’m paraphrasing, and he did it funnier, but the point was that the only thing he’d be fearful about if he were to meet Edwards in a dark alley was that Edwards might point a can of hair spray in his eyes.

The audience went nuts.

In case you’ve been sleeping through the presidential campaign thus far (as some would say Fred Thompson has), the hair spray joke was a reference to Sen. Edwards’ much-mocked $400 haircut, which only looks slightly better than the ones I get for my son at Supercuts. As the Edwards folks have gone to great lengths to explain, the haircut really didn’t cost $400; they were also paying for the hairdresser’s travel time.

It doesn’t matter. The haircut has become the emblem of his campaign, in much the same way (and believe me, this isn’t easy for me to say) the image of Michael Dukakis fastening his helmet for his tank ride became the emblem of that ill-fated campaign of 1988.

Now, everyone makes mistakes, of course — and some people more than others. But certain mistakes stick (for decades) and certain ones don’t. If the first George Bush had fastened the strap on a helmet to ride around in a tank, no one would remember it a week later: He was, after all, a veteran fighter pilot whose commitment to a strong defense policy was taken as a given by most people.

If my candidate, Dukakis, had put on a funny looking hospital gown, the picture would have run for a day: Dukakis was knowledgeable, respected and passionate on the subject of health care, something a silly moment could not have negated.

Mistakes become symbols when there’s something larger for them to symbolize, when they capture in a moment or a picture the fundamental flaw in the campaign.

So what about John Edwards’ expensive haircut?

The obvious problem it poses is that here is a candidate who has made our collective indifference to poverty the theme of his political efforts since 2003, and he's paying the kind of money for a haircut that could feed a family for a month. It’s the same reason the Edwards' big house in North Carolina, nicknamed Uncle John’s cabin by conservative radio host Michael Medved, became a punch line last spring. At one level, I suppose, you could say the problem is hypocrisy.

But that doesn’t entirely work as an explanation. Bobby Kennedy was very rich, and lived in a famously big house, Hickory Hill. He grew up much richer than John Edwards, who is a self-made man. Yet no one considered Bobby Kennedy a hypocrite when he traveled to Applachia and highlighted the poverty that existed within our country.

Too political, perhaps? That might be true of John Edwards’ self-definition as the anti-war candidate, given that he, like Hillary, voted to authorize the war when he was in the Senate.

But I have no doubt that Edwards’ concern about poverty is deeply felt. To be honest, it isn’t that great an issue, as issues go. Ronald Reagan, who ran against the welfare state, proved that middle class people are more likely to align themselves with the rich than with the poor, even if you argue, as both Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale did, that they would benefit personally more from populism than unbridled capitalism.

I remember the first time I saw Edwards do his "Two Americas" speech in New Hampshire before the primaries in 2004. He blew me away. It was like seeing Bill Clinton in the early days. I thought I was seeing raw talent. But then I watched the same spiel again and again that week, and by the time primary day finally rolled around, I was pretty sure Edwards’ days as a candidate were numbered.

It’s not that he slipped up in the later speeches; the problem was that he didn’t. With Bill Clinton, every time you see him it’s like the first time; even if he’s saying the same thing over and over, the energy he gets from the crowd, the emotions of the moment, make it seem different. With Edwards, it was exactly the same. He was polished, to a fault; flawless rather than real; model good-looking, not just charismatic. He was, in short, too pretty — not in a sexually attractive sense, but in an artificial one.

In high school, when you call someone a "pretty boy," it’s not a compliment. Unfortunately for Edwards, the same is true in politics. The reason his haircut has stuck, where Bill Clinton’s fancy one didn’t, is because it captures the flip side of Edwards’ boyish good looks. The flip side is the pretty boy, which is not what a country focused on terrorism and looking for toughness wants in a candidate.