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How Narratives Work


Essentially, the only remaining interest in the “revelations” about John Edwards at this point is that they provide a good example of how narratives are put together by political journalists when in their theater critic mode. Once someone has been established as one of History’s Greatest Monsters, not only their unique transgressions but utterly banal characteristics shared by most similarly situated individuals (“He has lackeys run personal errands!” “He uses obscenities around his campaign staff!”) become evidence that the candidate was a horrible person who was always doomed to fail. I think you can see this in most reports about the new gossipy books about the campaign.

Tina Brown’s summary, while it has some of this, presents a couple new points to consider. First, there’s the revisionism about how the media treated Edwards during the campaign. It’s absolutely fair game to criticize the media for not finding evidence of Edwards’s affair. But it’s not true that nobody raised other questions about Edwards in general and his “authenticity” in particular; there were in fact many stories about his haircuts and house, and people who considered Edwards a phony have never been hard to find. (And while progressives certainly have no reason to stick up for Edwards, they have very good reason to resist media judgments about “authenticity,” particularly since in practice they tend to mean that only Republicans can ever be “authentic.”)

Even better, however, is this throwaway, which tells you most of what you need to know about how these narratives work and how much useful information they actually convey:

It should be collectively blush-making for the press to remember the newsmagazine covers, the fawning TV sitdowns, the op-ed boostings Edwards garnered in the course of his years as a crowd-pleasing, “Kennedyesque” candidate who supposedly cared for the underdog and coined the “Two Americas” catchphrase.

The media spent years calling John Edwards “Kennedyesque.”* But then it turned out that he was rich and unfaithful to his wife. Wait, what was my point again?

*I don’t recall this and can’t find any evidence for it, but anyway, I still find the point funny…

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