The Washington Post

The John Edwards Rule of Mug Shots

The vanishing Cheshire Cat. (U.S. Marshals Service/Associated Press)

Don’t smile. Don’t make any effort to look like something that was not just scraped from the bottom of life’s shoe.

You are not supposed to look good in a mug shot.

Anyone who thinks that you are supposed to smile in a mug shot is missing the whole point of the exercise. Mug shots showcase us at our lowest points, stripped of all the trappings that made us look like kings. They reveal what we in fact are: Flawed, Possibly Drunk Human Beings in Bad Lighting.


But even people with polo ponies can sometimes benefit from the art of the mug shot.

If you achieve fame and glory, the standard arc of the celebrity narrative demands that at some point you will pose for a mug shot. It shows your understanding that in the grand scheme of things we are as flies to wanton boys: routinely killed, humiliated and caught selling meth in White Castle parking lots for the public’s sport.

Learn how to do it right: eyes forward, steely expression, dead eyes.

Galleries of “Worst Mug Shots Ever” abound across the Internet. I looked at enough of them while writing this to feel oddly guilty and have to rethink my life. Why are we so mesmerized by these unflattering snapshots?

It’s our characteristic response these days to seeing someone hit rock bottom — whip out a camera. The police precincts that captured these sad, demented individuals had occasion to take these pictures. But what reason have we to stare?

Simple enough: They’re human train wrecks. We can’t look away.

It is a sign of maturity that fewer and fewer people tend to take pictures of you. Two-year-olds are infinitely more photogenic than 32-year-olds. In fact, the more pictures that are taken of you as you age, the less well it bodes. The camera grows cruel with the passage of time. When you are 2, wobbling and stumbling across a carpet, the cameras come out. When you are 22 doing the same, the cameras come out again, and you have to spend the next week untagging yourself on Facebook.

The camera bays for blood. The red carpet pics are all very well. But we want the celebrities without the makeup, running into their homes in baggy pants holding the baby wrong to grab the day-old milk.

Edwards was a candidate defined by his camera appeal. Variety called him “aggressively photogenic” and it’s true, he was.

Now look at him.

Edwards smiles. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, some point out. No smile, you look like a criminal. But the smile just reinforces how surreal this whole narrative has been. A man some said was destined to be president, who cheated and lied and behaved like an entitled little boy until it all came crashing down. A man who now vies with Levi Johnston for the title of Most Overwhelmingly Disliked Politician, who now stands at the precinct, still grinning that eerily photogenic grin.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that this is how Edwards looks, even at his nadir. This grin was his trademark. Even without the notorious $400 haircut, John Edwards was the most photogenic man in the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. It seemed he didn’t have a bad side. Perhaps it was the interior.

Now, in front of the blank wall, smiling into the precinct lens, he looks — the same as ever.

The camera was his friend. And it is still kind to him, even now. Sometimes the gifts of the gods are useless. There was a time when he could have bought the world with his charm and that perpetual tan.

The shutter clicks. Like a Cheshire cat, the rest of him melts away — candidate, husband, father — leaving only the lingering grin.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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