The Golden Gaffe

Why the story of John Edwards's $400 haircuts has taken on a life of its own.

The $400 haircuts that recently got John Edwards into trouble won't go down as a turning point of the 2008 campaign. But this incident was a prime example of the kind of news story that's a fixture of modern political journlism: the embarrassing flub that takes on a life of its own in the media and a significance greater than it seems to deserve.

So it's a good moment to reflect on this small but powerful subcategory of political news, the better to understand and appreciate it when it makes its next appearance.

In one sense, flubs are nothing new. Way back in the '70s, President Ford's public pratfalls went directly from the evening news to Saturday Night Live skits to popular legend. Ford's tumbles became such a large part of his public image that clips of both the falls and the comedy they inspired were replayed over and over on television in the days after his death last year, sometimes as part of the explanation for why he lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. The 1980s brought us Michael Dukakis in the tank, while the '92 election featured then-President George H.W. Bush's reported amazement at a supermarket price scanner.

I say "reported" because, on closer inspection, the scanner story turned out to be not quite what it seemed. But some kind of exaggeration or factual blurring is common with this kind of story. The Howard Dean Scream, the infamous flub of the 2004 campaign, was not exactly what it seemed, either, i.e., a candidate who had just lost a crucial vote having a psychotic breakdown in public. A noise-canceling microphone made Dean's voice sound completely different from the way it sounded in the room, and the altered version is the one that flew around the world.

What has changed since the '70s is not the substance of the gaffes—gotchas and embarrassments are eternal—but the way they take off. Ford's falls were often spectacular, but for them to become a pop-culture craze required two separate kinds of network television exposure: the nightly news, and a weekly variety show. The gaffes became gaffes because a bunch of media honchos allowed them to.

Now anyone can play. George Allen's "macaca" incident went global last summer, thanks to a video cam and an upload (by his opponent's campaign) to YouTube. In other words, although journalists have always worshipped at the altar of the golden gaffe, they no longer have total control over the phenomenon. Often they're just following the public's lead, magnifying a story that was already cruising along nicely through populist media channels.

If the barriers to entry are lower, the flub still has to fly on its own. Superficially, these stories seem to work because they surprise us. In fact, the gaffes that resonate most are the opposite of surprises: They confirm some widely held suspicion about the candidate in question. The scanner tale played to the notion that George H.W. Bush was not the man of the people he pretended to be, but an out-of-touch blue blood. Howard Dean often seemed to be not entirely in control of his own public utterances, so the primal scream was a natural.

The handling of a flub is as crucial as the flub itself. George Allen's disastrous attempts to recover from "macaca" demonstrated, more than anything else, that he wasn't ready for prime time.

Which takes us back to the Edwards haircuts. The story took off because of an existing contradiction in Edwards's public image: the self-styled common man who comes off as a rich pretty boy. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote, "Someone who aspires to talk credibly about the two Americas can't lavish on his locks what working families may spend on electricity in a year. You can't sell earnestness while indulging in decadence."

Although the pricey haircuts were never at the top of the news, they got big enough that the Edwards team clearly saw them as a threat. The candidate said he would reimburse his campaign for the expenses, explained how it happened, confessed his embarrassment, and made a joke at his own expense. It was a skillful case of gaffe-be-gone. Next victim, please.