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…