WHAT WE THINK ABOUT WHEN WE THINK ABOUT EDWARDS' HAIR. Watching the coverage of John Edwards has been pretty depressing lately. It's obvious that a significant proportion of the political press corps has decided they just don't like him, and they're going to do whatever they can to destroy his candidacy. The principal vehicle through which this destruction is currently taking place is the haircut story, the vivid, emblematic tale that is supposed to tell us all we need to know about what a big, fat phony Edwards is. They drop it into story after story, no matter what the context is about, just as a reminder.

This could be lethal. It brings to mind the lie that "Al Gore said he invented the internet," which appeared in literally thousands of stories during the 2000 race. The Gore campaign never figured out how to handle it. At first they tried to explain that it wasn't true, but reporters just didn't care -- they kept repeating it anyway. Then they tried to joke about it, and that didn't work either.

Up until now, the Edwards campaign has gone through the same motions with the haircut story, with the same result. But now they're trying something different. If you watched the CNN debate, you saw this video:

This suggests that the campaign realizes how problematic the story is, and they're willing to try something radical. And it just might work.

What they seem to be doing is working to make the haircut story bigger, not smaller. They want it to be an issue. They're trying to change what people think about when they think about John Edwards' hair. Instead of "What a phony," they want people to think, "God, that press corps is so ridiculous, why can't they talk about something that matters? Why do they have it in for John Edwards? Just what about him scares them so much?"

Whatever you think about the things he's proposing, Edwards is certainly running the most substantive campaign of any candidate on either side. And yet his coverage has been more consumed with trivia than that of any other candidate. If his campaign can initiate this conversation and make "John Edwards' hair" shorthand for the shortcomings of the news media, not only will people be talking about Edwards, the damage of the haircut story could actually be neutralized. It might not succeed, but you have to give them credit for having the guts to give it a shot.

UPDATE: Over at Time, Mark Halperin, formerly of ABC's The Note, says this about Edwards: "His submitted video took on the infamous $400 haircut with cutting humor — but in a fashion that might have been too slick for some." So Edwards' video takes the press to task for focusing on haircuts and not issues, and Halperin thinks this is "too slick for some." And who, pray tell, might "some" be? Journalists like Mark Halperin, who already think Edwards is a phony?

--Paul Waldman

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