The Magazine

The Man from Seneca

From the February 2, 2004 issue: John Edwards, not just another pretty face.

Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Greenville, South Carolina

LIKE A FEW OTHER excessively nice-looking human beings, John Edwards is a victim of reverse lookism. Common experience, lately reinforced by the most rigorous scientific research, demonstrates lookism's effects: Ugly people never catch a break, while the well-configured among us always receive favored treatment. In the past, Edwards has undoubtedly been lookism's beneficiary. Having no political connections or experience to speak of, he would never have been elected senator from North Carolina, nor been fingered early on as a presidential prospect by the national press corps, if he had had the face, for example, of Dennis Kucinich, who, as a presidential prospect, has been fingered only by himself.

But now it is John Edwards who can't catch a break. His looks have become a curse. People who would never dream of using a racial epithet or adverting to a stranger's unwieldy nose or sloping chin think nothing of cruelly comparing Edwards to the Breck Shampoo girl or the cuter half of the Olsen twins. No one has yet compared him to a polo player from a Ralph Lauren ad or to a young John Derek, husband of Bo, or to Timmy in "Lassie," or to the TV personality Lyle Waggoner, Playgirl magazine's first centerfold in the 1970s, but I'm waiting.

In person, as on television, Edwards can't escape the sense of weightlessness his good looks impart. A major task of his campaign, therefore, has been a search for ballast. First he tried seriousness. Edwards the candidate amassed mountains of detailed policy papers, with specific proposals for education funding, health care reform, a crackdown on predatory lenders, among much else, until he realized that people who follow presidential campaigns find policy boring. Then he took on the prettiness issue directly. Though he doesn't look a day over 13, Edwards turned 50 last summer, and his campaign staff heralded the event with a blizzard of press releases and a week's worth of camera-ready events that stressed how the advancing years had pushed the candidate deep into maturity, indeed just to the edge of decrepitude. He remains a very young-looking 50, however.

His stump speech in the campaign's early days showed the same strained tendency to overcompensate for his looks. If President Bush, he would say too loudly, dared to challenge Edwards's professional history--Edwards became extremely rich in 20 years as a tort lawyer--"then, Mr. President, I have three words for you: Bring . . . it . . . on." On always came out as own. (The candidate has since abandoned the phrase, leaving it to be picked up, with similarly clownish effect, by John Kerry and President Bush himself.) "I believe that in America," Edwards would continue, referring to his father's labors in Carolina textile mills, "the son of a millworker can go toe-to-toe with the son of a president."

The prize-fighter belligerency has lately given way to the "positive, uplifting message of hope and opportunity" that so charmed the caucus-goers of Iowa. But the search for ballast goes on. The toe-to-toe line is emblazoned on a hand-painted sign that hangs in Edwards's headquarters here in South Carolina, to which the surviving Democratic candidates will turn once New Hampshire asserts itself and where, Edwards hopes, his own life story--native of the South, horny-handed son of toil--will be enough to lift him to victory. Political commentators have issued a bull decreeing that Edwards must win the primary here if he is to continue his campaign.

Edwards was born here, in a region known, mostly by locals marketing real estate, as the "Golden Corner" of South Carolina. His family left the state when he was 10. The day after his unexpected second-place finish in Iowa his campaign hurriedly scheduled an event in Greenville, not far from the small town of Seneca, where Edwards was born lo those many, many years ago. He flew in from New Hampshire Thursday morning for a rally on Greenville's newly refurbished Main Street, lined with gift stores and cute restaurants amid rows of linden trees, at a sandwich shop called Meador's.

The crowd of a hundred or more, spilling out onto the brick sidewalk, greeted him with volcanic enthusiasm. With the sound system cranking out the campaign's theme song, John Mellencamp's "Small Town," he was introduced as "our homeboy." He took his place before a sign reading "Welcome Home." "I'm so glad to be back in the place of my birth," he said, in case anyone had missed the point. He delivered his stump speech, in its new hope 'n' opportunity edition, with remarkable fluency. Edwards honed his professional skills manipulating the emotions of hillfolk jurors for hour upon billable hour, as they struggled to stay awake in courtrooms across the South. By a happy coincidence, these are precisely the skills called forth by a political campaign.