The news that John Edwards received two $400 haircuts (for a total of $800) can't bode well for his Presidential campaign, for two reasons. First, it reinforces the image of Edwards as just a pretty face. (See also a very odd video here.) Second, it smacks of hypocrisy. No one in the second America about which Edwards speaks so passionately is shelling out $400 for a haircut. In defense of Edwards, apparently about half the fee was due to the fact that the stylist came to Edwards to save him time, and Edwards says he didn't know how much it would cost. Plus, he has the good sense to joke about it. But still . . . .
The $400 haircut has the power to stick because of the need for our politicians to come across as authentic. If Dick Cheney had hair, and if he had it cut for $400, no one would notice, because Cheney makes no secret of his view that wealthy people should enjoy their riches (or that government should do all it can to help them get richer). But we expect better of populists.
Is that fair? Of course not. A struggling working family would do better under a President Edwards than a President Insert-Name-of-Republican-Here, even if the latter expresses greater cultural affinity for members of that family by pretending to enjoy hunting and Nascar, while supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. That's the basic storyline of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, after all.
But if criticism of Edwards for his haircut (or of John Kerry in '04 for enjoying windsurfing rather than something more in touch with the people, like bowling, say) is partly unfair, hypocrisy exacts a legitimate price too. As I argued last month in a FindLaw column about Al Gore's very big house, leaders who demand sacrifices have a moral responsibility to make some of their own, and not just in relative terms. It's easy to lose sight of that point because we have gone through over six years of a two-war Presidency in which the only "sacrifice" that has been asked of those outside the military (and their families) is another trip to the mall. At some point, however, sacrifices will be needed, and it's going to take someone with the appearance as well as the reality of moral standing to ask for them.