|Illustration by Peter Bennet|
Presidential campaigns increasingly resemble Hollywood movies: They’re forced into the straitjacket of self-reinforcing, high-concept storylines. Four years ago, Al Gore was ceaselessly portrayed as a liar, while George W. Bush was treated as the dumb guy. As it happened, this was exactly backward: Gore ran an epochally stupid campaign, while the disingenuous Bush never tired of pretending to be a moderate. No matter. The official narrative proved stronger than mere reality.
Last week, the same thing started happening to John Edwards. Back during the Democratic primaries, the media adored him (he’d wooed them hard), swooning over “the speech” about the Two Americas. Yet from the moment he was selected by John Kerry (already congealed into his own image as an uncharismatic flip-flopper), his storyline began to take on a less flattering new undercurrent. Sure, everybody still praised his sunniness and eloquence. But CNN broadcast primary-season footage of Kerry making a crack about Edwards being in diapers. Time and Newsweek ran articles calling him a Young Man in a Hurry — could the ambitious first-term senator be moving too fast toward the big job? Meanwhile, over on 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl wondered if Edwards was qualified to be commander in chief.
Although the Republican National Committee must have been thrilled by all these references to Edwards’ “Breck Girl” inexperience — echoing the Bush campaign’s talking points — nobody told the president he should lighten up. Asked about the North Carolina senator’s reputation for being charming, even sexy, Dubya snarled, “Dick Cheney could be president. Next.” Such a response seemed a tad, um, ungenerous given that in 2000 Bush hadn’t simply failed to identify the leader of Pakistan (“General . . . General. I can’t name the general. General”), but was so out of touch with America that he bristled when asked about Sex and the City — he thought the reporter was prying into his personal life. Could Edwards possibly be less qualified than that?
One quickly grasped that, for all his star quality, Edwards would henceforth be forced to wrestle with the perception that he might not be “ready.” Reporters would scrutinize his every word; pundits would be eager to highlight flubs proving he wasn’t up to the job. Getting in early, CNN’s agelessly toxic Robert Novak predicted that the vice-presidential debate could be a rerun of 1988’s Bentsen-Quayle mismatch. The green Edwards would be outclassed by the mature Dick (“Fuck Yourself”) Cheney.
When Edwards first joined Kerry on the stump, comedians had a ball sending up the campy homoeroticism of their handshakes, hugs and near kisses; the footage looked like something from a political spoof by Pedro Almodóvar. The love-in continued on 60 Minutes. Although you could sense awkwardness between these two extremely vain men, they were obviously stoked. Edwards wagged his tail like an eager puppy, hoping to fetch all the questions; Kerry smiled smugly — he really did seem like the guy who had the cutest date at the prom. Some secret part of him reveled in watching his flashy onetime rival (now flashy underling!) answer questions about being prepared that nobody would ever ask him.
One familiar experience in seeing a presidential hopeful on 60 Minutes comes when you realize that you wish his wife were on the ballot and not him. That happened with Hillary Clinton, whose twangy crack about not being Tammy Wynette showed far more honesty than Bill’s smooth, bit-lip contrition, and with likable Laura Bush, the only member of that clan you could imagine reading when not on the toilet. Something similar happened with Kerry and Edwards. For all their alpha-male bravado, the segment stayed goofily dull until they were joined by their wives — sharp, cool, brainy women who seemed less imprisoned than their husbands by the need for constant adoration.
Although she’s been in only one previous campaign, Elizabeth Edwards was clearly the smoother political wife. When Stahl asked about Republican charges that Kerry and Edwards were rich men who only pretend to be for the little people, Edwards quickly noted that her husband and Senator Kerry had actually opposed tax cuts for the rich, which meant voting against their own personal financial interests. (While such a vote hardly makes them saints — it’s simply a prosperous liberal’s version of noblesse oblige — one need only compare their behavior to Cheney’s response when Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill opposed a second big tax cut: “We won the elections. This is our due.”)
If Elizabeth Edwards appears born for the electronic hustings — imagine a Lynne Cheney who hadn’t bartered her soul to the Antichrist — Teresa Heinz Kerry has the prickly assurance of a woman who knows that, even if her husband loses the election, she still has a billion dollars and a life of her own. Elegant, worldly and chafing under her own designer straitjacket (“unnervingly unpredictable”), she seems like the half-crazy wife that Marcello Mastroianni might have cheated on in a ’60s Italian movie. Asked if the two couples were getting along, she avoided the obligatory yes, ambiguously humming the song “Getting To Know You.” Nor did she swallow any of the Bush team’s guff about how much money she and Kerry have. She coolly pointed out that the GOP never assailed her wealth when she was married to her late husband, Republican Senator John Heinz, and the money went to their party. I found myself liking Kerry better because this woman was willing to marry him.
At once mercurial and awash in some oceanic Portuguese melancholy, Ms. Heinz Kerry was by far the segment’s most compelling and authentic presence — she was the only one in the room who didn’t seem delighted to be there. She exuded an air of weariness with both the situation and the eager-beaver Edwardses, especially the ebullient John, who jaws away with all the self-effacing calm of a Roman candle. At one point, Stahl showed a photo of Teresa correcting the Edwardses’ young son, who was busy sucking his thumb. If her husband’s running mate had been doing the same, I suspect she might have been relieved.
You have to say this for the Bush years: They’ve made galloping paranoia seem perfectly reasonable. First came al Qaeda and the daily terror that some shadowy cell down the block was planning an Islamic production of “Helter Skelter.” This was accompanied by a second, more disconcerting fear — that the Bush administration is capable of anything. For the first time I can remember, virtually everyone I know believes in at least one conspiracy worthy of a Richard Condon novel, be it that Paul Wellstone was murdered, that the U.S. government is already holding Osama bin Laden and will spring him on the public right before November 2, or that Tom Ridge’s talk of delaying the election in case of a terror attack is actually laying the groundwork for a totalitarian takeover.
As one who thinks that conspiracy theories make for lousy politics — what’s being done in plain sight is plenty reprehensible — I’ve spent most of the last three years pooh-poohing claims that an oil pipeline was behind the invasion of Afghanistan or that Bush let 9/11 happen. After all, if Dubya were really as cunning as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he wouldn’t have let anyone tape those embarrassing seven minutes as he sat on his rump in that Florida classroom.
Still, it speaks volumes about the tone of his presidency that I have no trouble believing “July Surprise,” a revelatory article in the current issue of The New Republic. John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari offer well-sourced evidence that the Bush administration has been pushing the Pakistani government to capture or kill high-value targets, such as terrorist masterminds, so that this could be announced — surprise! — during the Democratic Convention later this month. Put bluntly, the Bush team is playing politics with the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Although such behavior is neither illegal nor unprecedented — on the contrary, one perk of incumbency is its array of carrots and sticks — “July Surprise” rightly asks why an administration so obsessed with catching high-value targets this summer felt nowhere near such urgency, say, a year ago. The answer is, of course, twofold: the impending election and the distractions of the struggle in Iraq. Bush aggressively defended that war on Monday, pretending that the absence of WMD was somehow beside the point (oh, that bungling CIA), and claiming that his actions have made the world safer. The war in Afghanistan, maybe. But as Peter Bergen argues in the latest Mother Jones, international experts suspect that the Iraq war probably increased the number of terrorists worldwide.
I was e-mailed links to The New Republic piece by maybe 10 people, and what stood out was that, unlike a year or two ago, nobody seemed shocked (or even shocked, shocked) by the idea that the administration would do such a thing. It was simply taken for granted that Bush and his War on Terror would be nasty and self-serving. Indeed, the only thing less surprising than this attempt at a “July Surprise” was that the mass media found this less important than whether the two Johns almost kissed.