'Haircutgate' and Other Silly-Season Nonsense: We're in for a Long Year of Right-Wing Smears

The John Edwards haircut keeps getting resurrected, like a creature from a bad horror movie. The Republicans unearthed it most recently in their second debate, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, in a quote that the national wire service story called "the most memorable sound bite of the night," said: "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."

Republicans have been focusing on symbolic character attacks since Nixon branded George McGovern, who'd flown 35 B-24 bomber missions in World War II, "the candidate of acid, amnesty and abortion." They've been branding their opponents as limousine liberals of questionable masculinity since Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, called anti-war critics "an effete corps of impudent snobs." If the attacks aren't adequately answered, too often they work.

Think about John Kerry's refusal to answer the Swift Boaters until far too late. Together with Kerry's more general distancing himself from his Vietnam-era protests (and endless mixed messages on the Iraqi war) it made a key difference in the election. The Edwards haircut is trivial but needs to be dealt with because it speaks to a long-cultivated narrative that anyone with money who tries to make this country more equitable must ultimately be a hypocrite. (Those without money are dismissed as marginal whiners.) "I can't trust anyone who gets a $400 haircut and then says they're for ordinary Americans," a fellow commercial fisherman told my oldest friend last week, shutting off any discussion before it began.

I heard John Edwards in person a couple weeks after the haircut story broke. It was a Seattle labor rally, and though the audience was presumably most interested in economic issues, Edwards led with the need for the Senate to force a prompt Iraqi withdrawal. He spoke eloquently about poverty and global warming, healthcare, disappearing pensions and how to build a more just economy. Then he spent an hour carefully listening and responding to questioners from the floor. Over the past few years, none of the major candidates have taken stronger or more passionate stands. I'd already donated to his campaign but went home and donated some more.

It's going to take strong stands like those of Edwards to overcome the manufactured distractions and distortions--and the media's propensity to make them their lead stories. You can't do it with mealy-mouthed platitudes. But so long as Republicans and a compliant media keep bringing up the haircut, Edwards also needs to do more to neutralize the incident's power as a symbol to be used against him. And he and other Democrats need to be ready for future irrelevant attacks.

As Edwards explained in a North Carolina Town Hall meeting, the haircut was scheduled by staff, squeezed in between the nonstop timetables of campaigning. "When you are a presidential candidate going all over the country you do what you have to do where you have to do it--you don't have any choice. And they get people, because you don't have any time. They get people to come to you -- they don't give you the bill, they send the bill, so I didn't know it would be that much. I knew it would be expensive, now; I don't want to mislead. When a haircut guy comes to your hotel to do your hair, it's not going to be cheap, so I knew that, but I did not know it was this expensive … nobody should be paying $400 for a haircut."

With pseudopopulist resentment a foundation of the political right, the Republican echo machine made much of the cost of Clinton and Kerry's haircuts as well. Richard Mellon Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review even picked up an anonymously sourced Drudge story to claim that one Kerry haircut cost $1,000. However much Republican candidates spent looking good for TV was irrelevant. The false or inflated character attacks happen to other candidates (as in the false Fox story claiming Obama was educated in a fundamentalist Madrassa). And even to noncandidates, as in the way that right-wing talk of Al Gore's massive electrical bill has become a staple of those global warming deniers. (His bill is high because he has staff using the house as an office and because he buys more costly green power -- he isn't running 27 electric dryer loads a day.)

Edwards is just the latest example, fed by the media pile-on. The original AP story even tried to make an issue of $75 charges to an Iowa beauty salon (adding the not-so-subtle implication that anyone who goes to a "beauty salon" is less than a real man). It turned out to be for TV makeup>, something stations insist on even for noncelebrity guests so that the lights won't make them look like creatures out of "Night of the Living Dead." So the issue isn't Edwards' haircut but how to respond to the lies and exaggerations that now masquerade as politics.

In a culture that wasn't so distracted to death, and where men like Karl Rove weren't constantly creating smokescreens and lies, incidents like the Edwards haircut would be irrelevant. But until American voters unequivocally reject such manufactured distractions, candidates can't prevail against these kinds of attacks by simply ignoring them. They need to have an organized team in place to help them respond as clearly, comprehensively and saliently as possible, while highlighting the bankruptcy of the politics represented by those who would promote them. Only then will they have a chance to address the real issues that we face.

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