A funny thing happened recently in the 2004 race for the White House. "What 2004 race for the White House?" you might ask. Silly you. As any media person can attest, the 2004 campaign is not only well under way, we've already created our first Democratic front-runner; extolled him as the most compelling, hunky, and just-plain-irresistible statesman to come along since JFK; and then promptly changed our minds and had him summarily removed from our presence, like a dog who made a disgusting mistake on the carpet—or like the mistake itself.
This is what happened to Sen. John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat whom media people have discussed as a presidential contender since he was elected to the Senate in 1998. Lately, Edwards has been behaving like a candidate, giving speeches and doing media appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other haunts of hopefuls. And in short order, he was the subject of several national media pieces: a U.S. News & World Report cover story on the Democratic contenders for which his face, not Gore's, made the cover; a flattering profile in The New Yorker magazine; and a Vanity Fair essay headlined "Next Stop, The White House?" that read like a brief for sainthood.
These pieces all came out around the same time, making Edwards the media's "It Pol." Next came a solo audience with Washington's interviewer-in-chief, Tim Russert, on Meet the Press. The show opened with Russert displaying the three magazine stories and posing what seemed at that moment to be the most thrilling question in all of American politics: "Who is John Edwards?"
The answer was less than thrilling. Edwards came off as ill-prepared and vague, apparently incapable of producing an original thought on any subject. Here, for instance, was his prescription for the Middle East crisis: "We got to find some way to bring these people to the table and make progress."
If Meet the Press were a vaudeville show, Edwards would have been yanked off screen with a cane. And that was effectively what happened in the succeeding days, when his Russert fizzle was the talk of Washington. Pundits trashed him, and Howard Kurtz completed the reversal in a media column headlined "John Edwards Falls to Earth," which ran on The Washington Post's Web site.
Watching this process unfold produces two opposite sensations. In a way, it's novel to see it happen this quickly, and so early in the campaign. Yet there's also something familiar about this cycle: It bears a striking resemblance to the way movie stars rise and fall. If the recent vicissitudes of John Edwards tell us anything, it's that the race for the White House has begun to look a lot like the race for movie stardom. And the media are running both contests. Some common threads:
1. Getting to Know You. Movie stars and pols first enter the public consciousness through scattered media appearances that are essentially public screen tests. A young film star might get a brief interview on the Today show, or score a spot on People magazine's list of the most beautiful people. John Edwards made People's 2000 list. When he appeared on Good Morning America last summer, Diane Sawyer introduced him: "He is said to have the combined political skills—are you ready for this?—of Clinton and Kennedy. Kennedy and Clinton together!" Sometimes, Hollywood actually gets involved in vetting up-and-coming pols. When Edwards was making the rounds among film moguls, the Los Angeles Times reported: "Many of the glitterati are abuzz over Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a blow-dried, smooth-talking curiosity who has impressed in his auditions."
2. The Run-Up. Next, a major media outlet does a profile that's well written and full of emotion. Heartfelt bios of movie stars are a staple of magazines. John Edwards got his break last summer in a long, moving profile by Richard Leiby that ran on the front of The Washington Post's Style section, and focused on the 1996 death of his son.
3. Validation. Vanity Fair is the supreme validator of Hollywood fame, and its piece on Edwards, in the June issue, looks a lot like its movie-star anointments. That it's by Christopher Hitchens, a name not normally associated with valentines, made it all the more noteworthy. In the margin of the first page was the sort of headline that VF normally devotes to young, impossibly talented Oscar contenders: "If you designed a perfect politician, the result might be John Edwards."
4. The Think Piece. Every real movie star must eventually be interpreted as the embodiment of some larger cultural trend or zeitgeist shift. In The New Yorker's take on Edwards, Nicholas Lemann writes that the senator's career as a personal-injury lawyer—he bristles with stories of underdog clients he championed—might make him a man for our times: "The country is moving more and more toward a courtroom-style politics of anecdote."
5. The Meta Piece. Movie journalists go to Sundance and Cannes and write delightful scene pieces about the absurdity of the business. U.S. News recently sent Roger Simon to New Hampshire, where he trailed Edwards and wrote a very funny, telling piece on the "indignities, large and small" of trying to win votes at this early, "retail" stage. "That Edwards has been the 'flavor of the week' for several weeks now helps him attract press attention," Simon writes, "but as the Japanese say, 'The nail that stands up gets beaten down.' " So it was.
6. The Flop. The Russert interview was to Edwards as the mega-flop Moment by Moment was to John Travolta back in 1978. In both cases, the media howled.
7. The Comeback. Don't write off Edwards just yet. Look at Travolta.