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Richie Rich in bib overalls

Published April 29, 2007


John Edwards is right - there are two Americas, one for the rich and another for everyone else. He lives in the former and campaigns in the latter, and sometimes he forgets where he is.

In the "other" America, there is Edwards, dressed in denim jeans and a work shirt, announcing his second Democratic presidential bid against the grim backdrop of a New Orleans neighborhood devastated by Katrina. Then he shows up in the "rich" America, getting $400 haircuts and advising a New York hedge fund for the kind of "wealthy insiders" he denounces on the campaign trail.

The haircuts and the hedge fund are instructive, if not definitive, in trying to understand Edwards' political character - and judgment.

Why would a presidential candidate who joins union picket lines, beats up on Wal-Mart and campaigns as a populist champion of American workers indulge himself in something as extravagant as a $400 haircut and then bill it to his campaign donors, not all of whom are rich trial lawyers and hedge fund managers? What was this son of a textile mill worker thinking?

When the embarrassing story broke, Edwards reimbursed his campaign for two haircuts totaling $800, but not for the more than $470 his campaign spent on makeup for the candidate. That's the least he could do. He certainly can afford it - he listed his net worth at between $14-million and $45-million in his 2003 Senate filing. But I wonder how Edwards would explain to a Wal-Mart worker that his $20 campaign donation had gone toward a $400 haircut by Torrenueva Hair Designs in Beverly Hills, Calif. It's beyond the comprehension of working people for whom $800 can be a month's rent.

After leaving the Senate and starting his second presidential bid, Edwards opened a poverty think tank at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He also built a 28, 000-square-foot compound on 102 acres valued at more than $5-million. No one should begrudge Edwards his wealth or his dream house. The Roosevelts and the Kennedys lived well, and so do the Bushes. But commuting to a poverty center from a mansion fit for a Saudi prince doesn't exactly burnish his populist image. Appearances matter in politics, although not the kind Edwards is concerned about.

Edwards also did something else that undercuts his populist message - about the same time he was opening his poverty think tank Edwards became a paid adviser to a New York-based hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group.

As the Washington Post reported last week, it was "an unusual choice of employment for Edwards, who for years has decried offshore tax shelters as part of his broader campaign to reduce inequality." While Fortress was incorporated in Delaware, the Post said, "its hedge funds were incorporated in the Cayman Islands, enabling its partners and foreign investors to defer or avoid paying U.S. taxes."

By the time Edwards left the hedge fund last year, the Post reported that he had received more than $167, 000 in donations from Fortress employees and executives for his 2008 presidential campaign. In his speeches, Edwards often decries the "two different economies in this country: one for wealthy insiders and then one for everybody else."

Again, what was Edwards thinking? He didn't need the money, and surely he must have known how it would look for a populist presidential candidate to be involved with hedge funds, a controversial segment of the investment market that attracts wealthy insiders looking for outsized returns and tax havens.

A campaign spokeswoman told the Post that Edwards still believes offshore tax shelters are wrong and that as president he would end them.

The $400 haircuts probably have done more damage to Edwards' political persona as the champion of the poor than his business and fundraising relationship with a hedge fund, a term that you will rarely hear on Main Street. A presidential candidate is in trouble when he becomes grist for late-night television comedians, who pounced on Edwards' tonsorial gaffe. Then there was the video of Edwards checking his appearance in a small compact mirror while combing, fluffing and spraying his hair before a television interview. It ended up on YouTube to the tune of I Feel Pretty. Someone should explain to Edwards the difference between grooming and primping.

Okay, you say what Edwards pays for a haircut matters less than what he would do as president about health care and Iraq. I agree. But a candidate's judgment matters, too, and so far Edwards has done little to inspire confidence in his judgment or his sincerity. It appears there are not only two Americas but two John Edwardses.

[Last modified April 28, 2007, 22:42:42]

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