By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
SEVERAL MONTHS ago, I observed on my blog that I think John
Edwards is a phony — a make-believe Man of The People.
It’s not so much that he’s lying
when he says he wants to help One America -– the Deserving Poor, whom he wants
to vote for him -– get what it has coming to it from the Other America (that of
the Really Rich, to which he disarmingly admits he belongs).
He’s a pro at this, and at some point, pros can’t be liars. On
some level, they have to believe in themselves, whether it’s stepping to the
plate to beat the home run record or striding to the podium to drip pure,
sincere concern upon the people. Mr. Edwards has a sufficiently plausible
background story to convince himself that he is, deep-down, that dirt-poor,
mill-town child he invokes in his personal anecdotes. So he is persuaded, even if I am not.
Why am I not? Well, I
hadn’t ever planned to get into that; I’ve just devoted more attention to other
candidates of both parties. I kept hoping that maybe Mr. Edwards would just
drop out. But he’s still in it, or trying to be. As The State’s Aaron Sheinin wrote in a piece headlined “Edwards
staying positive,” the former senator is “betting he can come from behind again
in 2008, as he did in 2004.”
Sigh. So I guess I’d
better “put up” and explain why I called him, on Feb. 8 on my blog, “one of the
phoniest faux populists ever to get his name in the papers.” The
impression is mainly the result of three encounters:
Strike One: Sept. 16, 2003.
The candidate was supposed to appear on a makeshift stage on Greene Street in
front of the Russell House. The stage was on the south side, with seating
before it in the street, and bleachers to both left and right. I stood on
higher ground on the north side with, as it would turn out, an unflattering
angle of view.
He was supposed to arrive at 4 p.m. but it was at least 5 before
he showed; I can no longer cite the exact time. When his appearance was
imminent, his wife appeared on the stage and built expectation in a manner I
found appealing and sincere. As either she or another introducer was speaking,
I saw Mr. Edwards step to an offstage position just behind the bleachers to my
left (toward the east). None of the folks in the “good” seats could see him.
His face was impassive, slack, bored: Another crowd, another
show. Nothing wrong with that, thought I -– just a professional at work.
But then, I saw the thing that stuck with me: In the last seconds
as his introduction reached its climax, he straightened, and turned on a
thousand-watt smile as easily and artificially as flipping a switch. He assumed
the look of a man who had just, quite unexpectedly, run into a long-lost best
friend. Then he stepped into view of the crowd at large, and worked his way, Bill Clinton-like, from the back of the
crowd toward the stage -– a man of the
people, coming out from among the
people -– shaking hands with the humble,
grateful enthusiasm of a poor soul who had just won the Irish Sweepstakes.
It was so well done, but so obviously a thing of art, that I was
taken aback despite three decades of seeing politicians at work, both on-stage
and off. Not enough for you? OK.
Strike Two: Jan. 23, 2004.
Seeking our support in the primary contest he would win 11 days later, he came to an interview with The
State’s editorial board.
He was all ersatz-cracker bonhomie, beginning the session by swinging
his salt-encrusted left snowboot onto the polished boardroom table, booming,
“How do y’all like my boots?” He had
not, it seemed, had time to change footwear since leaving New Hampshire.
The interview proceeded according to script, a lot of
aw-shucking, much smiling, consistent shows of genuine concern, and warm
expressions of determination to close the gap between the Two Americas. Then he
left, and I didn’t think much more about it, until a week later.
On the 30th, Howard Dean came in to see us for the second time.
Once again, I was struck by how personable he was, so unlike the screamer of
Web fame. I happened to ride down on the elevator with him afterward, along
with my administrative assistant and another staffer who was a real Dean fan
(but, worse luck for Gov. Dean, not a member of our board). After he took his
leave, I paused to watch him take his time to greet everyone in our foyer -–
treating each person who wanted to shake his hand as every bit as important as
any editorial board member, if not more so. I remarked upon it.
“Isn’t he a nice man?” said our copy editor (the fan). I agreed.
Then came the revelation: “Unlike John Edwards,” observed the administrative
assistant. What’s that, I asked? It seems that when she alone had met then-Sen.
Edwards at the reception desk, she had been struck by the way he utterly
ignored the folks in our customer service department and others who had hoped
for a handshake or a word from the Great Man. He had saved all his amiability,
all his professionally entertaining energy and talent, for the folks upstairs
who would have a say in the paper’s endorsement. He had no time for anyone
At that moment, my impression acquired stony bulwarks of Gothic
Strike Three: Sept. 22,
2004. I decided to drop by a reception held for then-vice-presidential
nominee Edwards at the Capital City Club that afternoon. I had stuffed my press
credentials into my pocket after arrival so as to mix freely with the
high-rollers and hear what they had to say. (They knew who I was, but the
stuffy types who want writers to stand like cattle behind barriers did not.)
Good thing, too, because there was plenty of time to kill, and there’s no more
informative way to kill it than with the sort of folks whom candidates want to
meet at such receptions.
It was well past the candidate’s alleged time of arrival, but no
one seemed to mind. Then a prominent Democrat who lives in a fashionable
downtown neighborhood confided we’d be waiting even longer. We all knew the
candidate had a more public appearance at Martin Luther King Park before this
one, and no one begrudged him such face time with real voters. But this
particular insider knew something else: He had bided his own time because he
had seen Sen. Edwards go jogging in front of his house, along with his security
detail, after the time that the MLK
event was to have started.
As reported in The State the next day, “Edwards was running late, and the throng waiting to rally with
him at Martin Luther King Jr. Park took notice. They sat for two hours in the
sweltering heat inside the community center, a block off Five Points.”
We were cool at the Cap City Club, drinking, schmoozing,
snacking, hardly taking notice. So he’s late? What are these folks going to do –- write checks for the Republicans?
But my impression had been reinforced with steel girders: John
Edwards, Man of The People, is a phony. And until I see an awful lot of
stunning evidence to the contrary, that impression is not likely to change.