CLEVELAND—Democrats who wanted John Kerry to select John Edwards as his running mate always cited the 90 minutes that will come Tuesday night as one of the most important reasons. The party faithful are still irked by Joe Lieberman’s chummy disposition four years ago as Dick Cheney amiably disemboweled him during the vice-presidential debate. Edwards supporters believed that putting one of the nation’s most effective trial lawyers on the ticket would stop Cheney from killing again.
But Edwards’ performances were uneven in the debates held during the Democratic primaries in 2003 and 2004. Twice—in Iowa just before the caucuses and in Wisconsin—he won so decisively that he probably helped himself at the polls as a result. He also performed impressively in the youth debate held in Boston, when he marched toward Howard Dean and confronted him for saying he wanted the votes of people with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. But on other occasions Edwards disappeared, or stumbled when forced to speak outside of his scripted talking points. Particularly worrisome for those rooting for him in the veep debate, two of Edwards’ worst primary debates—the Larry King-moderated debate in Los Angeles and the Dan Rather-moderated debate in New York City—occurred when the participants were seated at a table with the moderator, just as Cheney, Edwards, and PBS’s Gwen Ifill will be here on Tuesday night.
Here’s a speculative explanation of why Edwards did poorly in those debates: Edwards is a highly theatrical performer on the stump. He is, at heart, an actor. That’s how one member of the media who has followed Edwards this campaign described him to me. Bill Clinton, this person said, was no different in front of a crowd than he was on the campaign plane. But for Edwards, this reporter said, “It’s acting.” He’s a different guy backstage. Maybe Edwards has a tough time “getting into character” when he is seated at a table with his opponent, instead of roaming free onstage as he would in a courtroom. He’s one of those actors who looks great on a proscenium, but who doesn’t translate to the quieter media of film and television.
Or maybe Table Edwards is closer to the private Edwards than Stage Edwards, his public persona. What little personal contact I’ve had with Edwards during the campaign has always led me to think that he’s an intensely private man. His chosen sport is running, an activity that appeals to the solitary and the introspective. I was struck by how Edwards, during an interview with Fox News Sunday a few months ago, refused to discuss his consumption of copious amounts of Diet Coke, repeatedly smiling and saying, “We’re not going to talk about that.” An unimportant moment? Sure, but not a meaningless one.
In many ways, Edwards’ desire to not give himself fully to the public is laudable, such as his refusal to discuss the death of his son Wade, “in the context of politics,” as he put it in a profile in the October issue of Vogue. But the contradiction between Edwards’ public persona and his private self always surprises people when I tell them about it, because he’s so charismatic on the stump. That Vogue profile also noticed the differences between the public and the private man: “Edwards does not joke; despite his easy grin, he is described by close friends as ‘serious,’ ‘solid,’ ‘quiet,’ ” wrote Julia Reed. “When I ask his best friend and former law partner David Kirby if Edwards is ever loose, he says, ‘No, he is not. He runs an hour every day—that’s what he considers relaxation.’ “
Serious, solid, quiet: Those are words that most voters would apply to Dick Cheney, not John Edwards. Television fools us into thinking we know someone, when we really don’t. The best politicians of the TV age have used that trick of the small screen to their advantage. Edwards, so far in his short political career, has impressed many observers with his ability to impress voters in courtroom-like settings, in small gatherings and one-on-one encounters. But he hasn’t mastered television yet. Two of his biggest TV moments so far, his appearance on Meet the Press last year and his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, were both criticized.
But another great skill of plaintiffs’ lawyers, and of John Edwards, is the ability to cram, to immerse themselves in a subject on deadline. Tuesday night, when Edwards sits down at that table, we’ll learn how quick a study he really is.