Fake Out

The first time I saw John Edwards in person was a book signing at a Borders in Washington, D.C. He was promoting his new book, Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives . As he spoke about the themes of home and family and home and family, I was awed by the man’s arsenal of platitudes. He could say nothing as earnestly and convincingly as I’d ever seen anyone say anything. It was the perfect introduction to his presidential bid.

There are a lot of explanations for Edwards’ decision to drop out . His opponents’ celebrity, his obsessive focus on Iowa, the limited appeal of his one-note populism. But you can’t discount his unbearable phoniness. Even when I agreed with the message, I bristled at the brazen insincerity —or appearance thereof—of the messenger.

How did Edwards get pegged as the fake guy? A few ways. For one, he said the same thing over and over. Someone compared him to one of those dolls with a pull string that spits out one of 12 different phrases. You could ask him if two plus two equals four, and he would tell you that Washington is overrun by lobbyists and this race is personal for him. His campaign in Iowa was like a political Groundhog Day— every event was interchangeable with the last. Even when given an opportunity to open up and show the “real” Edwards, he declined. In the Las Vegas debate, his response to Tim Russert’s question about his greatest weakness—that “I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me”—smacked of self-pity.

Secondly, even when sincere, he sounded like someone trying really hard to sound sincere. Back in 2004, in his vice-presidential debate with Dick Cheney, Edwards praised the veep for “the fact that [Cheney and his wife are] willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It’s a wonderful thing.” What theater. The moment was so clearly planned, so smarmily delivered, so thinly veiled, that even Cheney haters had to feel some sympathy. It was like if Hillary praised Obama in a debate for overcoming his coke habit. Cheney thanked Edwards for his thoughts and left it at that.

And third, Edwards got a phony rap because of the contrast with his 2004 persona. For people who got used to him as John Kerry’s cute puppy, the angry attack dog of 2008 felt like an act. In reality, things were more complicated, with Edwards reportedly pushing Kerry to be more aggressive. Kerry’s endorsement of Obama this month only reinforced perceptions that Edwards isn’t the man he was in 2004.

That’s not to say Edwards is somehow less genuine a human being. I’m told that when he goes off the record, it’s like talking to a different person. But the way he came across in public, or when filtered through news outlets, showed a man who repeated himself for fear of saying the wrong thing. He blamed the media for giving his rivals more attention, but never offered up anything but the same old shtick, which after a year of campaigning—let alone four—became tired.

Edwards added a lot to the Democratic field, and he will be missed. He challenged Hillary’s lobbyist ties more forcefully than Obama did. He took Obama to task for his “present” votes. He also exhibited refreshing maturity when Obama and Hillary put each other in choke holds, claiming to represent the “grown-up wing of the Democratic party.” Obama should take a page from his book (as long as it’s not Home ) and ramp up the intensity going into Super Tuesday. Edwards now has the power to influence the race in a major way. But he won’t be remembered as the guy who transformed the 2008 election. He’ll be the guy who was too slick by half.