Man Without Qualities

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Spell Checker

The Wall Street Journal today offers some intriguing evidence as to the roots of the continuing irrational media infatuation with Senator Edwards in the form of an amazingly wrong-headed endorsement of Josh Marshall in a survey of political internet web sites:

An assiduous reporter with a writer's eye for nuance and detail, Josh Marshall spent the past week hop-scotching from one New Hampshire campaign rally to another, giving readers of his blog an on-the-ground sense of, for instance, how a candidate like Sen. Edwards was able to reassert himself.

"I've realized that it's impossible not to believe Edwards is going to be the nominee while you're actually watching an Edwards event," he wrote on Sunday. "The certainty wears off awhile later, of course. But while he's got you in his crowd you're under his spell ... There's some sort of hypnosis. At least in the moment, he's that good."

It should be among a candidate's worst nightmares that he convinces his audience of things that they later realize were the results of "a kind of hypnosis." Such a style of campaigning is highly uncondusive to inspiring the kind of loyalty and trust in a constituency that a serious candidate needs. What should be seen as a huge weakness in Senator Edwards' approach is seen by Marshall and this Journal reporter as a kind of strength: he's that good.

This kind of weakness is a very standard and long-observed pitfall of politicians, and it is easy to see that it's a big problem for Edwards in particular. Some media representatives do see the problem, at least in some cases,as David Brooks recently observed:

Aristotle believed that the greatest speakers don't just persuade audiences to accept an argument - they get people to trust their judgment. They use emotion and logic to establish their character, which leaves a deeper impression than the momentary thrill of a standing ovation. [Edwards'] speech does not do that. ... Edwards's answers are just too facile.

Brooks is not a reporter. Many reporters covering Edwards don't seem to understand at all - and fall in love. Why might that be?

Could it be that for most reporters hypnotizing readers with an article for a short time is just fine for the reporter's career? Do reporters sense that they have this in common with Edwards?

It is certainly fine for a trial lawyer to cast a spell that lasts for the length of the jury's deliberations. It simply doesn't matter that the jury may wake up a week later thinking: How could I have done such a thing?

The dynamic is a little different in politics. The presidential election process rewards those who can burst another candidate's bubble - while introducing resources far beyond those available in, say, a personal injury trial.

Assuming the spell can be made to last through an election, doesn't this aspect of Senator Edwards' approach suggest why at the time he decided not to run for re-election he was doing rather poorly in North Carolina polls? It seems that the spell had lifted in North Carolina.

It's a mistake even for a fancy trial lawyer to argue with Aristotle.

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