When the candidate finally chose his running mate the wise men and women of the media focused on the running mate's wealth, his boyish good looks, and his gift of gab - but some of them remarked tartly that he seemed a little light on substance. Nevertheless, the pundits agreed unanimously that his charm and looks would play well with the ladies.
John Edwards in 2004, right?
Guess again: Dan Quayle, the man for 1988.
As it happens, Dan Quayle had considerably more experience in politics, more heft in foreign policy than John Edwards has, but the press savaged him mercilessly. I recall a famous correspondent for a major Washington newspaper - not mine - remarking confidently to a crowded elevator that "the media will bounce Dan Quayle off the ticket before the delegates leave New Orleans." The early reviews of John Edwards are somewhat kinder.
Roger Ailes, the Bush team's media maven shrewdly observed that the media is interested in three things: gaffes, attacks, and good visuals. He offered an "orchestra pit" theory of politics. "If you have two guys on stage," he said, "and one of the guys says 'I finally have a solution to the Middle East problem,' and the other guy falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?"
Unfortunately, the media treated Dan Quayle as if he were forever falling into the orchestra pit. It wasn't fair, but he was fair game. As it turned out he didn't fall into the orchestra pit as often as the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, and the Bush team won anyway.
With its clearly liberal tilt, the ladies and gents of the press wouldn't notice John Edwards in the orchestra pit if he slept among the tubas, but he is nevertheless a cynical choice at a time when the nation - and the world, for that matter - demands gravitas of all four men on the ticket. For all their sins and shortcomings, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were serious and seasoned. The most telling criticism of Dick Cheney four years ago was that with his experience and Washington savvy he might overpower the presidential candidate. No one doubted his competence.
A mother I know of new twins complains that one of them is a good eater and the other is a good sleeper. If they were bundled into one baby, "she would be terrific." Separately they make life difficult. So it is with the big-haired Democratic twins. If they were bundled into one person, the dull seriousness of Kerry combined with the exuberant charm of Edwards might work, but they're two people with complementary weaknesses. New York Times columnist Bill Safire puts it bluntly: "There's no such thing as a charisma transplant."
They're eager to reflect the youthful vitality of Jack Kennedy, which, as we later discovered, was less than met the eye. JFK chose Lyndon Johnson to win Texas and hold the South, which was beginning to slip permanently from the grasp of the Democrats. Against JFK's svelte Massachusetts manner LBJ could sound like Senator Claghorn, but he was a serious man who did what was expected of him. John Edwards probably can't.
Vice presidents thrust into office have been an uneven lot. Andrew Johnson, who followed Abraham Lincoln, was a Democrat and a disaster as president, with none of the strength of character or the leadership abilities necessary to restrain the Radical Republicans who imposed a harsh Reconstruction on the South.
Harry Truman was the happy surprise, a man the public never imagined was prepared to be president. FDR never made him privy to his war policies. But Truman was a quick learner. His integrity, grit and native intelligence informed his leadership, and he emerged a strong president.
But all that was in a time and place long ago and far away. In our image-driven age, we're always at risk of choosing celebrity over character, sensation over substance, suckers for the slick fix when things get complicated. The clever sound bite, the catchy phrase triumphs over the methodical argument. Reading takes work. Seeing does not. A get-out-the-vote group in San Francisco offers free manicures and nail files to encourage single women to register to vote. A Washington political action committee signs up singles parties with free bikini waxes and yoga classes. Democrats in Pennsylvania built a registration drive over a beer tasting. Customers of strip clubs in 18 states are treated to "voter appreciation" parties.
John Edwards says we live in two Americas, and he may be right. But the two Americas are not about the haves and the have-nots. They're about those who take the world seriously and those who don't.