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My week in the ‘phony’ Spin Cycle

HAD YOU asked me on Monday what I would be writing about for Sunday, a second column dealing — even peripherally — with presidential wannabe John Edwards would have been the last thing I would have guessed.

Yet here I am. What choice do I have? I’ve spent so much time this past week dealing with the reaction from the first one that I haven’t had time to develop anything on another topic.

It was just a midweek column, not worthy of a Sunday slot, a back-burner thing I had promised to address several months earlier on my blog, after readers challenged me for calling the man a “phony” without explaining the series of experiences that had led to that impression — which is all it was.

(And in case you didn’t read that column and are wondering what those experiences were, I have neither the space nor inclination to repeat them here. They took up a whole column the first time. You can find it on my blog. The address is below.)

But without ever intending or wanting to, I got caught up in the Spin Cycle of national politics. My musings had become, for that brief moment, Topic A — or at least B or C or D — and believe me: You don’t even want to be Topic Z in that alphabet.

Subsequent events didn’t follow each other in any way that made sense, so I’ll just throw them out in no particular order:

 The Drudge Report picked up my column Tuesday morning, which launched the craziness as much as any one thing.

 The New York Post called asking to reprint it, which it did the following day under the headline, “POOR LITTLE PHONY: JOHN EDWARDS’ FAKE EMPATHY.”

 Dennis Miller of “Saturday Night Live” fame interviewed me on his radio show Thursday.

 I got mocked by the “Wonkette”: “Brad Warthen of the South Carolina’s The State has a controversial opinion about John Edwards! His controversial opinion, which he, Brad Warthen, thought of himself, and which he is going to share... with you now, is as follows: John Edwards is a phony! A big fat phony!”

 After two more radio shows called — one from Charlotte (for Thursday), another from Canada (for today), I called Andy Gobeil so that S.C. ETV wouldn’t miss out, and he had me on his show Friday morning.

 My column was the lead political story on the Fox News network Tuesday night. Or rather, the response the Edwards campaign felt compelled to produce — and I do feel sorry for them for that — was the lead story. The story posted online began: “John Edwards’ campaign scoffed Tuesday at a new effort to depict the Democratic presidential candidate as phony after an influential columnist for a newspaper in Edwards’ birth state wrote that his personal experiences only reinforce his image of Edwards as plastic.”

 My blog had its third-biggest day ever Tuesday with 5,825 page views, and its fourth-biggest on Wednesday. The biggest ever had been in June, when state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was indicted. That made sense. This did not.

 ABC News National Senior Correspondent Jake Tapper wrote on his blog about my “rather nasty op-ed” in these terms: “I personally find the evidence rather thin for such a scathing verbal attack.” Hey, if I had meant to mount a “scathing verbal attack,” I would have come up with some thicker stuff.

 Someone named Pamela Leavey, writing on “The Democratic Daily,” said I was “Spewing Right-Wing Talking Points About John Edwards,” and thereby providing “a classic example of what’s wrong with our media.”

I guess I had been spewing “Left-Wing Talking Points” when I said nice things about Barack Obama the week before. Of course, Ms. Leavey wouldn’t know about that, because she had probably never heard of me before Tuesday. That was true of most of the people commenting.

And yet, they seemed to think they knew an awful lot about me. Their confidence in passing judgment was far greater than my own. All I had done was describe impressions I had formed from actual experiences in my life. I didn’t consider them any better than anyone else’s experiences. When Zeke Stokes wrote in saying that when he worked on the Edwards campaign earlier this year he had formed a very different impression, I urged readers to take what he said every bit as seriously as what I had said.

But folks out in the blogosphere or in the 24/7 political spin cycle don’t have time for reflections upon personal experience. They have a convenient short-hand vocabulary for passing judgment instantly upon anything and everything, and all of it is based in childishly simplistic, partisan labels: “He’s one of them! I don’t like them!” or “He’s one of us! Everything he says is true!”

Among the more than 1,500 unread e-mails awaiting me Tuesday morning were quite a few from across the country praising or damning me for having expressed my opinion. Many were as shallow as Ms. Leavey’s “reflections.”

But here and there were messages from someone who got the point, which was this: We all form subjective impressions, often unconsciously. In my column I tried to determine exactly when and where I had picked up the bits that formed my overall impression of this one guy among many running for president. I thought that such an airing would be mildly interesting to readers, who often wonder what sorts of gut “biases” inform what we write in the paper, and where they come from.

A few readers appreciated that, saying that there had been something about Edwards that had nagged at them, and my column had helped them define it: “You hit something in me that I had not been able to figure out,” wrote Glenice Pearson. “Thanks for explaining what was wrong with him,” wrote Nancy Padgett. “I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t enthuse even though he is a SC boy.”

In turn, I appreciate those few readers who got it. The rest of it I could have done without.

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