A Hair-Raising YouTube Duel
John Edwards slugs it out in a newfangled political ring
If there were ever any doubts about the Internet's pivotal role in the 2008 presidential race, John Edwards and his hairdo may have answered them. A YouTube video of Edwards fussing with his locks has proved so distracting that the candidate put out a rebuttal video just last week. It wasn't the Lincoln-Douglas debates, exactly, but the discourse is "a hallmark of the new era," an era in which anything a candidate does can be immediately posted to the Web, says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute.
The Edwards campaign said the original video, which captures two minutes of Edwards fussing, fluffing, and brushing his hair to the West Side Story song "I Feel Pretty," didn't harm the candidate, but not everyone agreed. "It reinforces his reputation as a pretty boy and...that is very damaging," says James Kotecki, a recent Georgetown University grad who has made a name for himself on the Internet by critiquing official candidate videos. The videoviewed more than 800,000 timeswas posted in November and caught the media's eye in January. Then in April it was revealed that Edwards paid $400 each for two haircuts, and the clip resurfaced. For Edwards, it was a perfect storm; columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that the country wasn't ready for a "metrosexual in chief."
In response, the campaign offered a video rebuttal during last week's CNN/YouTube debate set to a song from the musical Hair. The camera focused first on Edwards's hair, then on the hair of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and President Bush. That was followed by scenes from Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Finally, the screen flashed, "What really matters?" and "You Choose."
Homework. Peter Hauck, on the blog Prezvid.com, said the Edwards campaign "got the homework assignment right" for the response, which had 102,000 hits in one day. Others weren't so sure. "Edwards would be better off getting his next haircut live, Web streamed, and engaging the haircutter on the issues," says Michael Cornfield, a political management professor at George Washington University.
"I Feel Pretty" wasn't the first video clip to damage a candidate's image. Who can forget the holler that escaped from Howard Dean's mouth in 2004? "What he thought was a small group of supporters...became the 'Dean scream' thing that went all over the Internet," Leyden says. Another memorable YouTube moment was George Allen's "Macaca" slip, which contributed to the loss of his Senate seat.
The 2008 race has already seen several videos go "viral." In March, a video "mash-up" cast Hillary Clinton as Big Brother in a reprise of an Apple Computer ad from 1984. More recently, a sultry model recorded "I Got a Crush...on Obama" that received over 2.8 million hits.
Candidates are countering in a variety of ways. Most campaigns now assign staffers to monitor the Web for attacks that demand a response. And respond they do. Mitt Romney's campaign quickly released a video explaining his change to an antiabortion stance after a 1994 video noting that he'd previously favored abortion rights got a spate of new attention. Others reach for humor. Hillary Clinton produced a YouTube hit spoofing The Sopranos. Leyden suggests the best way for candidates to deal with YouTube is to wade right back in. Just look at Edwards.
This story appears in the August 6, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.