John Edwards’ Blog Lesson*

If you know this blog, you know I tend to stay away from the stuff that other bloggers go on and on about.  The bigger the meme, the more room I give it to roll on through. But the story of John Edwards and the two bloggers he hired and then had to let resign (or whatever), is so mysterious, it’s been nagging at me, so I have to discuss it.

I don’t think Amanda Marcotte is a bigot.  On her site, Pandagon, she says she is “pro-sex, pro-feminist, pro-freedom,” which is like motherhood and apple pie, baseball, hot dogs and Chevrolet as far as I’m concerned.  She’s got a mean streak, no question, and she lets fly with harsh and graphic sarcasm particularly in response to organizations like the Catholic church that, in her view, repress women. 

She’s not the first feminist to feel rage like this against the Catholic church.  Remember Madonna, dancing in front of a burning cross?  Or Sinead O’Connor, ripping up a picture of the Pope?  I’m a guy, so I don’t feel this rage, but I’m hardly in a position to begrudge her the feelings she has. But anyway, it’s not like she’s obsessed with the topic.  She can be a charming and perceptive writer, and she’s energetic in her approach to blogging.

Melissa McEwan also seems like a bright young writer with a progressive bent, for whom the “anti-Catholic” charge was a bad rap.  However, she is also a fierce feminist who refers to herself as “Queen Cunt of Fuck Mountain,” and to the religious right as “Christofascists.” 

If you read a lot of blogs, especially on the progressive side, this kind of language is fairly typical.  It is not aimed solely at religious people; it’s aimed at conservatives, Republicans, DLC Democrats, Joe Lieberman Democrats, the media especially Fox News… It’s how they express themselves. 

If asked, I would tell all these progressive bloggers that words like “fucktard” and “Bushitler” are getting tired.  They aren’t persuasive, they’re alienating.  But it’s the language they seem to enjoy, and the Internet was made for this kind of thing.

Amanda was supposed to be the blogmaster for candidate Edwards, and Melissa was supposed to serve as a liaison to the extensive blogger network of progressives.  They had both settled in North Carolina to assume their new jobs.  But then Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League released a statement demanding they both be fired.  Edwards didn’t fire them, but he publicly disassociated himself from the things they’d said in their blogs, and, inevitably, both resigned within days.  

Marcotte and McEwan had done nothing new to warrant Edwards’ scolding statement, nor the termination of their political careers, between the time of their hiring and the time the controversy surfaced.  If the campaign had done minimal due diligence, they would have known the kind of electronic paper trail these bloggers had left behind.  They must have done this. So why did Edwards hire them? 

Presumably, the campaign knew that anytime a journalist or commentator is hired by a politician — never mind if they use a blog as their medium — their past words will be thrown in their face.  Pat Buchanan is the most famous columnist to serve stints on the White House communications staff, and there was no shortage of adversaries who tried to hang intemperate words he wrote as a journalist around the presidents he served.  Sidney Blumenthal had the same experience when he worked for Clinton.  (His response was to become even more outrageous as a political aide than he’d ever been as a writer.)

The most recent example before Marcotte and McEwan is White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. ThinkProgress, a progressive site, had a ton of fun finding critical things Snow had said about his new boss, President Bush — calling Bush “an embarassment” and “impotent.”  For some reason, Bush looked past this record and hired Snow anyway, and any controversy about it died quickly.  But Bush is a lame-duck president.  Edwards is a candidate, a dark horse, running for the nomination of a party where big-city Catholics are important.

Lots of Catholics will vote for a pro-choice candidate.  They’ll vote for Democrats, knowing that among their elites are many who disdain their faith.  But they’ll have a hard time swallowing a candidate who embraces people who seem to have no reverance for their beliefs whatsoever.  To quote Donohue:

“Writing on the Pandagon blogsite, December 26, 2006, Amanda Marcotte wrote that ‘the Catholic church is not about to let something like compassion for girls get in the way of using the state as an instrument to force women to bear more tithing Catholics.’ On October 9, 2006, she said that ‘the Pope’s gotta tell women who give birth to stillborns that their babies are cast into Satan’s maw.’ On the same day she wrote that ‘it’s going to be bad PR for the church, so you can sort of see why the Pope is dragging ass.’ And on June 14, 2006, she offered the following Q&A: ‘What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit,’ to which she replied, ‘You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.’ 

This kind of colorful talk — which goes way beyond commenting on the church’s anti-choice stance — is something no mainstream campaign could tolerate.  Edwards’ people should have found it, and it should have stopped them in their tracks.  Forget the Catholic League.  Edwards’ political rivals would have hauled this stuff out.  It’s often forgotten that the first candidate to attack Michael Dukakis for releasing rapist-murderer Willie Horton on a weekend prison furlough was not George H.W. Bush, but Al Gore.  Gore didn’t put the racial twist on the story that Bush did; but he looked for the weak spot, found it, used it, and then left it for the Republicans to pick up in due course.

You think Hilary Clinton would do any different?  But say she didn’t.  Say the Marcotte/McEwan writings had gone unexposed until the November campaign — perhaps against GOP nominee and (pro-choice) Catholic Rudy Guiliani.  You think Guiliani’s campaign would have been able to resist grandstanding to the faithful about these ‘blasphemous’ campaign aides?

The rules of politics haven’t changed just because of the Internet.  If anything, they’ve been reinforced and accelerated.  Hard-core, wild-west, shit-stirring bloggers have no more place on a political campaign than slash-and-burn op-ed columnists did; and it was unprofessional of the Edwards campaign to think otherwise. 

I don’t feel bad for Marcotte and McEwan.  In the short run, their lives are disrupted, but this controversy could end up making their careers in the field where they are best qualified — as writers. 

But I keep thinking about Edwards, who made his zillions as a plaintiff’s lawyer suing doctors and hospitals.  Litigators like him know the “gotcha” game better than anyone on the planet.  One stray word that strengthens their case, and they will hammer the defendent with it until they’ve reduced them to bloody pulp.  How could people working in his name not have seen what was inevitably coming?

*UPDATE:  Happened to run across a post by Dan Gerstein in The Politico.  Gerstein, was communications director for Sen. Lieberman’s general election campaign win over netroots’ crush Ned Lamont.  He assails the liberal blogosphere for its unquestioning defense of Marcotte and McEwan:

But the reality is, as I experienced over and over again in the Lamont-Lieberman race, this is the liberal blogosphere’s standard-less operating procedure. They have decided that the best way to fight the “right-wing smear machine” that they so despise is to create an even more venomous, boundary-less, and destructive counterpart and fight ire with more ire.

It also goes to show just how deeply most liberal bloggers believe that Republicans and conservative are morally illegitimate, and as such, any criticism or argument made by the other side is on its face corrupt and dismissible. If it is said by Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who has a history of controversial statements himself, it automatically becomes invalid, no matter the inherent integrity of the underlying proposition.

What these liberal bloggers fail to appreciate is that this petty, polarizing approach is not how you ultimately win in politics – especially in an era when most average voters outside the ideological extremes are fed up with the shrill, reflexive partisanship that dominates Washington, and when the fastest growing party in America is no party.

The blogger bomb-throwing may be good for inflaming the activist base, and, as they demonstrated in the 2006 Lieberman-Lamont Senate primary race in Connecticut, for occasionally blowing up the opposition. It’s not bad for bullying your friends, either, as the liberal blogosphere did last week in pressuring Edwards to not fire the two bloggers who penned the offensive anti-religious posts.

But the typical blog mix of insults and incitements is just not an effective strategy for persuading people outside of your circle of belief – be they moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, or the swelling number of independents – to join your cause. In fact, it’s far more likely to alienate than propagate them. 

*ANOTHER UPDATE:  Thinking about this issue, I remembered another unlikely combination between a politician and an out-of-control writer:  Jimmy Carter and Hunter S. Thompson.  But Thompson was never more than an “unofficial advisor” to the future president.  This post is a Thompson bio that includes the story of his visits to Plains, Ga.


8 thoughts on “John Edwards’ Blog Lesson*

  1. Not to throw your own words back in your face, but, I defy you to defend the characterization of Marcotte as capable of being “a charming and perceptive writer.” Marcotte brings teh nasty, and nothing but. There are people who like that, but I don’t think that’s the same as charm. There are people who find fart jokes hilarious; it doesn’t make fart jokers witty. And, anyway, I’ve had more perceptive abscesses.

    I don’t care very much about their jobs–the getting or the losing–beyond wondering whether they were bought out. I don’t like most of the people who went after them (especially since the only complaint I have with McEwan is that I find her boring; it’s irritating that they got lumped together the way they did), but, there you go. Red on red. Here’s hoping somebody takes down whoever Marcotte’s conservative counterpart is (may Ch-i have mercy on his soul, whoever he is), for balance.

  2. I believe this statement from your piece is inaccurate:

    Your post:
    “It’s often forgotten that the first candidate to attack Michael Dukakis for releasing rapist-murderer Willie Horton on a weekend prison furlough was not George H.W. Bush, but Al Gore.”

    It’s true that Gore mentioned the program but he made no reference to Horton in any way. Bob Somerby dealt with this in 2002 (see quote below from Also, your link does not make that claim, in my reading.

    Bob Somerby:
    “Is it true? Did Al Gore “bring Willie Horton to the American people?” Did Al Gore “bring Willie Horton into that race?” Only in the dysfunctional world of our deeply devolved public discourse. What actually happened in 1988? In one of 45 Dem debates that year, Candidate Gore challenged Candidate Dukakis to defend a Massachusetts furlough program under which convicts serving life sentences without hope of parole were released on weekend passes. In particular, Gore noted that two furloughed prisoners had committed new murders while on weekend leave. (Willie Horton was not one of these convicts.) The program was almost impossible to defend. But Gore only mentioned the program once, and he never mentioned any prisoner’s name; never mentioned any prisoner’s race; never ran any TV ads on the topic; and never used any visuals. More specifically, he never named Willie Horton, or mentioned his specific crime (Horton committed a brutal rape while on leave). In the Bush-Dukakis general election, the Bush campaign—and an independent, pro-Bush group—made extensive use of the Horton incident. In particular, the independent group used visuals of Horton which seemed to emphasize his race (he was black). In later years, as he neared his death, Bush campaign director Lee Atwater apologized for his own conduct in pushing the racial aspects of the Horton matter.”

  3. Okay, “charming” might have been a little over the top. But Marcotte’s Salon piece, though deeply misguided, is written with verve. And some of her blog posts are funny. I don’t see hate from her so much as paranoia. The misogynist patriarchy casts its dreaded shadow over everything. The more specific she is, the more perceptive and enjoyable her writing can be. When she starts to make sweeping judgments that all point to the same underlying problem behind every social problem she describes, she comes off like a 1930s communist writing about capitalists and the masses. She’s a third-rate polemicist, but she could be a first-rate writer if she is willing to evolve in that direction.

    What’s really clear, however, is she had no business going into mainstream politics, a world where PR word-massage is always going to prevail over spontaneity. In Salon, she is wrong when she writes:

    “While there’s a chance that the crusade to separate McEwan and me from the Edwards campaign was just a singular happening, the possibility lingers that this was just the first sign that the established media and political circles will not be letting the blog-writing rabble into the circle without a fight.”

    See, I thought the “blog-writing rabble” wasn’t interested in becoming part of the establishment. The qualities that make them interesting, important and powerful are not available to the establishment. You don’t want to join the establishment, Andrea, you want to make them react to you. It’s almost a cliche now to quote Bob Dylan’s “to live outside the law you must be honest,” but it applies to the “blog-writing rabble.” Politics is a sport for those who don’t mind lying too much, and want to fuzz up the differences between polar opposites for the sake of getting votes. Bloggers who write like Marcotte are about subjective truth, and want to polarize people. Why did she think those two things would ever mix?

  4. RE: Gore and Willie Horton. By providing the Slate link I was pointing people to the very nuance you elucidate. I further added that the Republicans added the “racial twist” to Gore’s charge, which did not bring up race.

    Nonetheless, the Slate story supports my point, because it quotes Sidney Blumenthal of the Washington Post reporting that “the exchange attracted the interest of Jim Pinkerton, the research director for the then flailing Bush campaign.” In other words, Gore’s oppo research opened the door. My only point was to show how ruthless and effective modern campaigns are at finding and exploiting vulnerabilities; and that these things don’t tend to stay within the family, but are picked up by the other party. HRC might have used (and still might use) the bloggers’ quotes in one way, but the Republicans will find another, perhaps uglier, way to use them. That’s just how it works.

  5. You have more hope for her potential than I do. I’ve long since stopped reading her, so I’m not a fair judge of any of her recent work. She’s always just seemed creepy and cruel.

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