Perhaps you’ll understand if I claim a certain vindication here. Two weeks ago, I suggested that John Edwards’ hair matters because the importance he places on his ‘do makes it OK for ordinary voters to likewise attach some significance to it. In response, I got charged by one reader of engaging in Coulterfication.
But now, a highly respected member of the mainstream media, an award-wining columnist and the Raleigh News & Observer’s official deep thinker — this fellow is, after all, the paper’s officially designated ideas writer — agrees. More or less.
(That lavish, drum roll of an introduction is an inside joke, by the way. The writer to whom I refer is J. Peder Zane, my former N&O colleague and still a pal. He is indeed a gifted writer and a smart guy, but he’s also a native New Yorker and a Yankees fan. Those last two things tend to keep him on permanent probation among decent, God-fearing folk.)
Zane’s article, which you can read here, makes the point that such “issues” as Edwards’ hair and Hillary Clinton’s cleavage are worth media attention because voters talk about them. And people talk about those things, of course, because they’re in the news. Yes, there’s a certain chicken-or-egg circularity at work in that argument, but it’s undeniably true. The media can report something, but it can’t make people be interested in it. Conversely, it can decide to not report something else, but can’t prevent people from being interested in it anyway. Popular fascination is the freest commodity you’ll find. Its market is totally resistant to regulation.
I suspect that popular interest in such things as hair and cleavage are symptomatic of an underlying problem — specifically, the relentless blandness of our leaders and the slipperiness of their policy positions. Politicians tend to make sweeping, crowd-pleasing utterances — Cure poverty! Bring the troops home! Fight terror! — that are either poll-driven or nakedly designed to appeal to their base of support. While voters often respond to those simple, uncomplicated exhortations, they also look for the small, telling indicators that help them round out their impressions of a candidate. They’re desperate for anything that will help them cull the political herd wisely and efficiently.
It would be silly to base a voting decision solely on the basis of something as inconsequential as a haircut or a cleavage-revealing blouse. But it’s also silly to declare that those things are meaningless, and that more important issues are somehow being neglected if attention is momentarily focused on them. A cheap haircut wouldn’t lose Edwards nearly as many votes as he’d attract by simply wandering into a different small-town barbershop for a trim every week. But the fact that Edwards doesn’t take that endearing, folksy step tells me that he considers his hair too important to be trusted to an ordinary barber. Why shouldn’t I ponder what that says about his priorities?