Political reporter Adam Nagourney is typically hyper-sensitive to any hint of a Republican "attack" on a Democrat (not so much the other way around). So it was refreshing to read him actually having a little fun needling Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards on Friday as "The Breck Girl" for his preening over his hair and looks when he thinks he's off-camera (most notoriously in a widely seen YouTube video set to "I Feel Pretty").
Nagourney on Friday wrote about the mini-flap over Edwards' two $400 haircuts and brought up the YouTube video while suggesting a perception of hypocrisy. "John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat, announced on Thursday that he was reimbursing his campaign $800 to cover what his aides said was the cost of two haircuts - yes, you read that correctly - by a Beverly Hills barber, though, perhaps, the word stylist is more applicable....Mr. Edwards has presented himself in the Democratic field as an advocate of working-class Americans, lamenting the nation's growing economic disparity."
But apparently when it comes to talking about Democrats in the Times, there's no levity allowed. In a web-only column by Nagourney posted on Tuesday, he basically apologized for his reporting during the 2004 campaign, in which he now feels Bush operatives took advantage of him by first injecting the "Breck Girl" insult into the mainstream (he made no mention of his Friday piece, but surelythat's whyNagourney felt the need to write about it).
"The tale of John Edwards' $400 haircuts may have ended - or at least his campaign hopes it ended - when Mr. Edwards told Iowans on Friday that he was embarrassed by the episode. It arguably began four years ago this weekend with a story in The New York Times about the White House's strategy for dealing with prospective Democratic challengers to President Bush.
"In the last paragraph of that story, which I wrote with a colleague, Richard W. Stevenson, an unnamed 'Bush associate' was quoted as referring to Mr. Edwards as 'the Breck Girl of politics.' Another Bush adviser, again unnamed, was quoted as saying of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, 'he looks French.'
"In both instances, we were attempting to flesh out for readers the White House's plans for discrediting prospective Democratic opponents. Both people quoted were at the senior levels of the Bush political operation. And in both cases - as Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards could certainly attest by the end of 2004 election - the Bush machine had followed through on the plan it laid out 18 months earlier to define the Democrats on Republican terms.
What Nagourney felt worst about: "Our story may have had the result of not only previewing what the Bush campaign intended to do, but, by introducing such memorably biting characterizations into the political dialogue, helping it.
"Was that a mistake on our part? Perhaps. Our goal is to give people as much information and insight as we can, in this case to help them understand what was happening in a campaign and to give them a heads-up about what to watch for. Political journalists make judgments all the time about what is and what is not newsworthy, but the bias is to err on the side of giving information to readers."
One doubts the Times ran a similar piece apologizing for circulating cracks about former Vice President Dan Quayle's spelling prowess.
Sure to add to Nagourney's heartburn is that even Maureen Dowd, not exactly a friend of the Bushes, grabbed hold of Edwards' hair and yanked on it in her Saturday column (TimesSelect $ required):
"Following his star turn primping his hair for two minutes on a YouTube video to the tune of 'I Feel Pretty,' Mr. Edwards this week had to pay back the $800 charged to his campaign for two shearings at Torrenueva Hair Designs in Beverly Hills. He seems intent on proving that he is a Breck Girl - and a Material Boy."