No other candidate seems to spend as much time in front of the cameras dressed as if he's on his way to put up drywall than John Edwards. Wearing stonewashed Levi's, a long-sleeve work shirt, a rubber "Livestrong" bracelet and a sport watch the size of a hubcap, Edwards regularly embraces blue-collar clothes with the zeal of a man eager to demonstrate that he's no stranger to elbow grease.
He pairs his faded jeans with sport jackets in that baby-boomer way, rather than a metrosexual way, in which case the jacket would be Prada Sport and the jeans would be overpriced. Sometimes Edwards channels Johnny Cash and wears a black shirt with his jeans, and one half-expects him to break into a country ballad about growing up as the son of a millworker -- just in case there's one living soul left who is unaware of that biographical detail. The candidate is also a firm believer in rolling up his sleeves for emphasis.
This summer, an especially flattering photograph of Edwards appeared on the cover of Men's Vogue. Taken by celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz, the picture shows Edwards wearing jeans, a black shirt and a Carhartt canvas jacket. He's sitting against the beaten-up bed of an open pickup truck and he's cuddling a sturdy dog.
The candidate has noted that he is only a single generation removed from being a working stiff. And these images are meant to highlight his intimate understanding of those who live hand to mouth. In his campaign story line, he is selling empathy.
But often there is the sense that Edwards is so aware of the camera's gaze that he can't stop posing and simply be. He looks like a man in costume -- as though he has popped his face into a cardboard cutout of "American Gothic." He is a millionaire tourist in his own narrative. Instead of underscoring how close he is to his working-class roots, he reminds viewers of how far he has come.
In the Leibovitz portrait, the details contradict the regular-guy theme. His hair is tousled and gleaming in the way that only expensive hair can be both fabulous and mussed. His canvas work jacket is too crisp and spotless. The dog looks as if it has just come from a pampered grooming session. Edwards doesn't look like some family farmer getting ready to walk the back forty. He looks like a gentleman farmer preparing to tour his estate.
His body language doesn't match his workingman wardrobe, either. He has a tendency to underscore his points with a familiar gesture that surely must be attached to the gene that harbors political striving: the thumb jab. To hammer home a sentence, he pounds away at it with his hands curled into a thumbs-up configuration. Does anyone other than a politician jab a thumb into the air while speaking? Who has ever witnessed thumb jabbing on the factory floor? In line at McDonald's?
Edwards dresses like the common man, but every gesture is a reminder that his life has been undeniably exceptional.