Saturday, June 2, 2012

Quote of the Day (Gail Collins on John Edwards, ‘Deep As a Melted Ice Cube’)

“There was a time when many of the great minds in the Democratic Party thought John Edwards would be the perfect presidential nominee. He was cute and from the South, and the son of a millworker, and he talked about poor people and had lots of position papers.

“Unfortunately, he was about as deep as a melted ice cube.”—Gail Collins, “Mr. Edwards and the Shrimp,” The New York Times, June 2, 2012

This post will not consider John Edwards’ worth as a husband, father or human being, nor what “God’s plans” might be now that the former U.S. Senator from North Carolina has (at least temporarily) escaped the pokey in the wake of his acquittal on campaign-finance charges. It’s not merely because I considered some of these matters before and see no reason to revisit them, but also because, when you get right down to it, the blogosphere has come to a consensus on all of this surpassing any Presidential landslide I know of.

Nor will I consider the legal niceties that allowed him to walk. If you want to know why, after weeks of testimony and all kinds of documentation, enough jurors thought that “the evidence just wasn’t there” to convict, just ask members of Congress (most of whom are attorneys, like Edwards himself) how they  pass legislation that looked simple enough to garner complimentary headlines (e.g., CAMPAIGN-FINANCE REFORM PASSED), but impossible for jurors to make head or tail of.

But there’s another aspect of the case hardly considered in the din of recent headlines, a matter that Ms. Collins opened up for discussion inadvertently: the media enabling of a Southern-fried narcissist in an empty suit and a $400 haircut.

I’m a faithful reader of Ms. Collins, but nowhere do I recall what she related in her most recent column: a conversation with Edwards on his support of South Carolina shrimpers who wanted to ban the import of South Vietnamese fish. That longstanding omission is surprising, since the car talk between columnist and candidate quickly demonstrated that Edwards was the human equivalent of Gertrude Stein's definition of Oakland: i.e., “there is no there there.” Other Times readers who actually went to the trouble to check the paper’s online archives likewise found no such mention of this conversation before now.

At the same time, virtually every reader of Collins over the past few years knows that she has repeatedly (more than 60 times, as of three weeks ago) observed that on a family vacation some years ago, Mitt Romney placed the family dog Seamus on the car roof.

Nor was Collins the only member of the media to observe that Edwards was intellectually incurious and out of his depth. Two and a half years ago, after the Senator acknowledged, following months of denials, that he had indeed fathered a child through former campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen admitted he had put aside doubts about Edwards’public-policy acumen, concerns that came from the most reliable sources: namely, the candidate’s Senate colleagues and his own conversations with Cohen.

Let’s consider the nature of these discoveries for a second. They came not to unknown hoaxers phoning to ask the candidate’s position on a country about which he knew nothing (as when staffers from Spy Magazine called Capitol Hill offices in 1993 to inquire about congressmen’s stances on Freedonia, the mythical nation sent up in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup). No, these were widely read, veteran columnists at the two U.S. newspapers most responsible for the ongoing media conversation, the Times and the Post--writers with the same worldview as Edwards and, therefore, not inclined toward skepticism or "gotcha" moments.

Most of all, the superficial, clichéd, uninformed responses came concerning the issue on which Edwards based his Presidential campaign: inequality. If Edwards couldn’t have been bothered to find the facts about something that mattered to him, how would he have fared in the Oval Office on matters about which he cared little?

What does it say about the Newspaper of Record that it could offer only the most shallow analysis of why Mitt Romney arrived at his position on the debt (i.e., a large portion of it derived from his Mormon faith), but it could say nothing about a shallow former U.S. Senator, Vice-Presidential candidate, Presidential aspirant, and Attorney-General wanna-be?

I'm not a Tea Partier who screams about unfair treatment of GOP candidates deemed stupid. (As far as I'm concerned, if Dan Quayle were a TV series, it would be "F Troop.") But I'm afraid Ms. Collins needs to explain more convincingly why she never conveyed her concerns about Edwards' lack of gravitas till now. Unfortunately, any such explanation would have to allow that her acceptance of the candidate's views predisposed her against examining his record more critically. 

This week's cover story for the New York Observer, on the tensions created at the New York Times under publisher/CEO Arthur Sulzberger Jr., quotes executive editor Jill Abramson congratulating the staff for its coverage of President Obama’s support of gay marriage, noting that it was an example of “how deeply we have grown as a newsroom and how much more all of you are doing, as we create new and richer layers of journalism.”

Lack of vetting for a candidate as vacuous as Edwards, however, is hardly a point of pride. In fact, it should be as much a matter of soul-searching as Judith Miller's erroneous reports about Iraq's nonexistent nuclear program on the eve of the war. After all, the last election induced much hand-wringing about the dangers of an attractive, charismatic candidate who also happened to be inexperienced, incurious and lazy--and a heartbeat away from becoming President.The press, led by the Times, patted itself on the back for pointing out Sarah Palin's flaws. The press--very much including The Times--will earn more of the country's respect when it scrutinizes such a candidate who happens to be a male Democratic liberal as it will for examining a female Republican conservative.

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