Recalling the national overreaction to that Edwards column

A few days ago, Mike Fitts posted this on Facebook:

This seems like a good day to re-post my former boss’ column, written not all that long ago in the summer of 2007, about his gut feeling that John Edwards was “a big phony.” Got Brad Warthen national attention then, but all too obvious now.

Which I thought was nice of him to remember. I suppose it was because a certain person was back in the news…

Mike linked to the version at thestate.com, which is appropriate because that’s the one that got all the page views — 190,000 the first day, as I recall. Totally screwed up the stats for the paper’s website for the next year. Whenever the online folks presented stats at senior staff meetings, they had to explain, “We’re actually doing well, it’s just that is looks down because we’re up against that Edwards column of Brad’s…”

I was jealous of that traffic; it certainly would have been cool if it had gone to my blog. That would have been a huge hit — like months worth in a day. (Back then, I only got about 20,000 or 30,000 page views a month. You may be surprised to know that today, my traffic is closer to 200,000 a month — sometimes more, sometimes less.) Also, the version I had posted on my blog was better. I had written the column at home on my laptop and didn’t realize how long it was, and had to chop it down much more than I would have liked to get it into the paper. The version on my blog — the “director’s cut” — was shorter than the original, but quite a bit longer than the paper version. My point came across better in the blog version, because the anecdotes weren’t quite as truncated.

But still, the lesser version created a weird sort of splash. Still does. I got a letter just a week or two ago from a reader who says that he was an Edwards supporter and gave me grief in a letter at the time (I don’t recall), and is sorry now. But a lot of smart people didn’t see the problems with this guy at the time. In fact… I’ve told y’all before how I talked myself hoarse in a three-hour meeting to get the board to endorse Lieberman in the 2004 primary, right? What I may not have mentioned was that a couple of my colleagues wanted to back Edwards, and I was determined not to let that happen — so determined that I just won my point by exhausting everyone. I’m very glad not to have an Edwards endorsement on my record. (By the way, when people give me a hard time for how horribly Joe did in that primary, I have a ready answer: “Yeah, the voters went with Edwards. I’m more satisfied than ever that I was right.”)

I was shocked at the reaction the column got. It was just something I had had on a back burner for months. I had said something on my old blog about Edwards being a phony, and readers demanded to know what I meant, and when I realized how many words it would take to explain (being based on several encounters with the guy), I told them I would do a column sometime. I had been on vacation the week before I wrote this, and for one reason or another decided to take one more day — the following Monday — off as well. Feeling guilty, I told my colleagues that to make up for it, I’d whip out a column over the weekend, so nobody else would have to write one for Tuesday. This was an easy one to do, the “legwork” for it having been done inadvertently years before. So I dropped by the office Sunday just to check my memory on a couple of dates and such, wrote it that night at home, and turned it in on Monday morning — and didn’t think about it any more.

Then, the next morning, two people stopped me on the way into the building to talk about the column, and the reaction that was already manifest. I think Drudge had already picked it up. Later in the day, the column — or rather, the Edwards campaign’s reaction to it — was the LEDE political story on the Fox News site. As the week wore on, I was about worn out with media interview requests. I did as many as I could, including Dennis Miller’s show, which was fun. It was a day or so before I had any actual contact with the Edwards campaign (it led to no more than a lunch with the lovely Teresa Wells, in which she told me how wrong I was and I told her that no, I wasn’t). But I had heard that Mrs. Edwards, among others, had gone somewhat ballistic.

The media reaction surprised me. I hadn’t thought much of the column myself, and it was some time later before I figured out why the reaction was so much bigger than anything I could have imagined: The thing is, I had SO completely dismissed Edwards in my mind by that time. I had decided years earlier that I didn’t take him seriously, in spite of his having won the primary here in 2004. So who cared what I thought of him at that point, right? I mean, the column was still worth doing on a day when I just needed a column because he WAS still in the news. But I was convinced the nominee was going to be Obama or Clinton. And I just wasn’t seeing the enthusiasm for him in SC that had so alarmed me in 2004.

But a lot of folks, including national media, were very much taking him seriously still. Hence the reaction… And when I saw how the news stories about it were written, I realized: Oh. Everybody’s thinking, the editorial page editor of the largest newspaper in a state where Edwards HAS to win has just totally dismissed him. That’s the deal. The situation reminded me of that Mark Twain quote: “I was born modest; not all over, but in spots; and this was one of the spots.” It was one of those rare occasions when other people thought my opinion was a bigger deal than I thought it was. Doesn’t happen much.

I was reminded of this when the Mark Sanford Argentina thing broke. Sure it was a big story here, and pretty big nationally as well. I got that. But there’s a difference between a big story that everybody talks about, and something important enough to be the lede story in The New York Times. I’ve written before how the NYT has a VERY conservative, old school idea about its lede position — which I respect. As a front-page editor back in the 80s, I’m kind of old-school myself. There is a huge difference between the most interesting story of the day and  the most important. Sometimes, the same story is both. This was not one of those times. I expected it to be a big story above the fold in The Times — maybe with a picture. But no, it was a simple, sober, one-column lede story. Which startled me.

Remember, I was helping out The New York Post on that one. (By the way, my first interaction with the Post had been when they asked to reprint the Edwards column. Dig the headline they put on it.) A story under my byline led that paper. But that was to be expected. That was the Post. I thought the NYT would have a greater sense of perspective — yes, interesting scandal, but not that earth-shattering, I thought they’d harrumph.

Here’s why I was wrong: Again, the national media were overestimating a South Carolina political figure. Since I knew Mark Sanford well, I didn’t take any of that “presidential contender” garbage seriously. The NYT did. Hence this wasn’t just a juicy scandal to them. It was a contender’s White House chances being dashed.

It’s interesting when you suddenly see things from another editor’s perspective…

13 thoughts on “Recalling the national overreaction to that Edwards column

  1. Ralph Hightower

    Somehow, I got on it’s mailing list, John Edwards, when it was a senator from North Carolina.

    Now, I resent jerks that sign me up for mailing lists when I didn’t subscribe to the mailing list!

    When I requested to be removed from it’s mailing list, Edwards basically replied “Since you’re not from NC, I don’t give a rat’s ass about you.” It’s response showed me the true character of Edwards.

    DANGER! DANGER! WILL ROBINSON! DANGER!
    Don’t use the US House of Representative web form to sent email to Joe Wilson. It will sell, trade your email address to others, including campaign consultants.

    I don’t unsubcribe to stuff that I didn’t subscribe to.

    Reply
  2. Steven Davis

    “He was all ersatz-cracker bonhomie”

    I see you were making up words back then too. Did you call him a “cracker”? That’s kind racist don’t you think?

    Reply
  3. Brad

    Those are perfectly normal words. And I called him an ersatz cracker. Look up ersatz. It really describes him. He was all, “Look at me; I’m Andy Griffith!” Very much the inferior imitation.

    How many times did you want me to write “phony”?

    Or were you having trouble with “bonhomie?”

    Dennis Miller liked the phrase, but admitted he couldn’t pronounce it (the bonhomie part). I said don’t look at me; I can spell it, but I don’t know how to say it. To paraphrase Seth Green, I don’t talk Paris talk.

    Reply
  4. Steven Davis

    Well if you had said “phony” I would have known what you said… you might as well have written it in Latin. I question why reporters think they need to write at a graduate student English Literature level when writing for a local newspaper. I think it’s an ego thing (look at me, how smart am I, ersatz crackerism).

    BTW – Should I have the voice of Thurston Howell III in my head when reading this style of writing?

    Reply
  5. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    “ersatz”–the German word for “fake” is very commonly used–like “kaput” “angst”– it’s not like he said “Verfremdungseffekt”–I don’t think in reasonably well-educated circles “ersatz” would be considered showing off.

    “bonhomie” is maybe not quite so commonly used.

    “Cracker” is not racist–it’s classist. “Honky” could be seen as racist, depending on your definition of racism–does it only include the minority races, or does it encompass any racial distinctions.

    –but John Edwards is legitimately a “cracker.” It’s not like when Cape-Cod-summering Professor Fenner tries to get folksy. John Edwards has bona fide poor hill-folk credentials.

    and I think using the term “cracker” can be offensive when wielded by someone of Brad’s aristocratic ancestry….

    Reply
  6. Norm Ivey

    Ridiculing literacy is the other side of celebrating stupidity. The words would have challenged me as well, but I would have taken the time to learn their meaning rather than mocking their author.

    Reply
  7. Brad

    Thanks, Norm. In any case, I remain satisfied that “ersatz-cracker bonhomie” perfectly describes the scene as Edwards propped his boot up on the editorial boardroom table and said (from the transcript of my recording):

    EDWARDS: “Thank you. Have you noticed my shoes?” (general laughter as he props one on the table) “These are my boots that I wear in New Hampshire ’cause you can clomp aroun’ in ‘at snow an’ mess (inaudible), but it don’t exactly fit in Sou’ Calahna.”

    Reply
  8. Scout

    Ersatz is one of those words that I have definitely heard but am not quite sure of the definition. I should stop and look things up more often but I tend to just infer something from context and go with the flow. Now I know. Thanks.

    I think people with broader vocabularies can come across as elitist when they actually aren’t. It’s just if you happen to know more words, it is hard not to use them, if you are fond of communicating.

    Reply
  9. bud

    The level of sophistication in word usage depends on the type of audience. Given the highly intellectual nature of Brad’s blog readers… we should expect a certain level of uncommon words to convey a level of nuance to the proceedings.

    On the other hand, a daily newspaper editor should be fairly limited in word usage. George Will comes across as boorish with his over-the-top use of obscure words. Given that a newspaper is normally read at 7am over coffee it seems reasonable to expect to enjoy the insights of a pundit without the need to consult a dictionary.

    Reply
  10. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    They’ve analyzed Palin’s emails and found that she actually writes at an 8.5 grade level–about, they say, equivalent to an executive. The only interesting thing beyond that is that she doesn’t use many Alaskanisms.

    So is her folksy malapropistic speaking style ersatz, or is it just that she writes better than she speaks.

    -malapropism–: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially : the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context

    You guys do realize that you can open another window and google any word you don’t understand?

    Reply
  11. Mark Stewart

    Don’t we all write at the level of a high-schooler’s comprehension?

    Short of trying to make sense of a scientific abstract, there is very little that a typical high school student wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be able to understand about written communication.

    Actually, that’s one of the things that sank most newspapers, they stopped sparking peoples’ thoughtfulness and engagement. Words matter. In the US only the NYT and the WSJ seem to even try to hold to a 10th grade standard. That’s unfortunate.

    And bud, some people complete crossword puzzles over breakfast…

    Reply

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