Edwards' table manners.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 5 2004 2:25 AM

Edwards' Table Manners

How much advantage will Cheney gain from the debate format?

CLEVELAND—Democrats who wanted John Kerry to select John Edwards as his running mate always cited the 90 minutes that will come Tuesday night as one of the most important reasons. The party faithful are still irked by Joe Lieberman's chummy disposition four years ago as Dick Cheney amiably disemboweled him during the vice-presidential debate. Edwards supporters believed that putting one of the nation's most effective trial lawyers on the ticket would stop Cheney from killing again.

But Edwards' performances were uneven in the debates held during the Democratic primaries in 2003 and 2004. Twice—in Iowa just before the caucuses and in Wisconsin—he won so decisively that he probably helped himself at the polls as a result. He also performed impressively in the youth debate held in Boston, when he marched toward Howard Dean and confronted him for saying he wanted the votes of people with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. But on other occasions Edwards disappeared, or stumbled when forced to speak outside of his scripted talking points. Particularly worrisome for those rooting for him in the veep debate, two of Edwards' worst primary debates—the Larry King-moderated debate in Los Angeles and the Dan Rather-moderated debate in New York City—occurred when the participants were seated at a table with the moderator, just as Cheney, Edwards, and PBS's Gwen Ifill will be here on Tuesday night.

Advertisement

Here's a speculative explanation of why Edwards did poorly in those debates: Edwards is a highly theatrical performer on the stump. He is, at heart, an actor. That's how one member of the media who has followed Edwards this campaign described him to me. Bill Clinton, this person said, was no different in front of a crowd than he was on the campaign plane. But for Edwards, this reporter said, "It's acting." He's a different guy backstage. Maybe Edwards has a tough time "getting into character" when he is seated at a table with his opponent, instead of roaming free onstage as he would in a courtroom. He's one of those actors who looks great on a proscenium, but who doesn't translate to the quieter media of film and television.

Or maybe Table Edwards is closer to the private Edwards than Stage Edwards, his public persona. What little personal contact I've had with Edwards during the campaign has always led me to think that he's an intensely private man. His chosen sport is running, an activity that appeals to the solitary and the introspective. I was struck by how Edwards, during an interview with Fox News Sunday a few months ago, refused to discuss his consumption of copious amounts of Diet Coke, repeatedly smiling and saying, "We're not going to talk about that." An unimportant moment? Sure, but not a meaningless one.

In many ways, Edwards' desire to not give himself fully to the public is laudable, such as his refusal to discuss the death of his son Wade, "in the context of politics," as he put it in a profile in the October issue of Vogue. But the contradiction between Edwards' public persona and his private self always surprises people when I tell them about it, because he's so charismatic on the stump. That Vogue profile also noticed the differences between the public and the private man: "Edwards does not joke; despite his easy grin, he is described by close friends as 'serious,' 'solid,' 'quiet,' " wrote Julia Reed. "When I ask his best friend and former law partner David Kirby if Edwards is ever loose, he says, 'No, he is not. He runs an hour every day—that's what he considers relaxation.' "

Serious, solid, quiet: Those are words that most voters would apply to Dick Cheney, not John Edwards. Television fools us into thinking we know someone, when we really don't. The best politicians of the TV age have used that trick of the small screen to their advantage. Edwards, so far in his short political career, has impressed many observers with his ability to impress voters in courtroom-like settings, in small gatherings and one-on-one encounters. But he hasn't mastered television yet. Two of his biggest TV moments so far, his appearance on Meet the Press last year and his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, were both criticized.

But another great skill of plaintiffs' lawyers, and of John Edwards, is the ability to cram, to immerse themselves in a subject on deadline. Tuesday night, when Edwards sits down at that table, we'll learn how quick a study he really is.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Movies
Sept. 19 2014 2:06 PM The Guest and Fort Bliss How do we tell the stories of soldiers returning home from war?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.