The John Edwards haircut won’t go away. The Republicans resurrected it most recently in their second debate, when former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckaby said, in a quote that the national wire service story called “the most memorable sound bite of the night,” “we’ve had a Congress that’s spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop.”  Republicans have been focusing on symbolic character attacks since Nixon branded George McGovern, who’d flown 35 B-24 bomber missions in World War II, “the candidate of acid, amnesty and abortion.”  They’ve been branding their opponents as limousine liberals of questionable masculinity since Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, called anti-war critics “an effete corps of impudent snobs.” If the attacks aren’t adequately answered, too often they work.

Think about John Kerry’s refusal to answer the Swift Boaters until far too late. Together with Kerry’s more general distancing himself from his Vietnam-era protests (and endless mixed messages on the Iraqi war) it made a key difference in the election. The Edwards haircut is trivial, but needs to be dealt with because it speaks to a long-cultivated narrative that anyone with money who tries to make this country more equitable must ultimately be a hypocrite. (Those without money are dismissed as marginal whiners.) “I can’t trust anyone who gets a $400 haircut and then says they’re for ordinary Americans,” a fellow commercial fisherman told my oldest friend last week, shutting off any discussion before it began.

I heard John Edwards in person a couple weeks after the haircut story broke. It was a Seattle labor rally, and though the audience was presumably most interested in economic issues, Edwards led with the need for the Senate to force a prompt Iraqi withdrawal. He spoke eloquently about poverty and global warming, health care, disappearing pensions, and how to build a more just economy. Then he spent an hour carefully listening and responding to questioners from the floor. Over the past few years, none of the major candidates have taken stronger or more passionate stands. I’d already donated to his campaign, but went home and donated some more.

It’s going to take strong stands like those of Edwards to overcome the manufactured distractions and distortions. You can’t do it with mealy mouthed platitudes. But so long as Republicans and a compliant media keep bringing up the haircut, Edwards also needs to do more to neutralize the incident’s power as a symbol to be used against him. And he and other Democrats need to be ready for future irrelevant attacks.

As Edwards explained in a North Carolina Town Hall meeting, the haircut was scheduled by staff, squeezed in between the nonstop timetables of campaigning. “When you are a presidential candidate going all over the country you do what you have to do where you have to do it--you don't have any choice. And they get people, because you don't have any time, they get people to come to you--they don't give you the bill, they send the bill so I didn't know it would be that much. I knew it would be expensive now, I don't want to mislead--when a haircut guy comes to your hotel to do your hair it's not going to be cheap, so I knew that, but I did not know it was this expensive… nobody should be paying four hundred dollars for a haircut.”

With pseudo-populist resentment a foundation of the political right, the Republican echo machine made much of the cost of Clinton and Kerry’s haircuts as well.  Richard Mellon Scaife’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review even picked up an anonymously sourced Drudge story to claim that one Kerry haircut cost $1,000. However much Republican candidates spent looking good for TV was irrelevant. The false or inflated character attacks happen to other candidates (as in the false Fox story  claiming Obama was educated in a fundamentalist Madrassa). And even to non-candidates as in the way that right wing talk of Al Gore’s massive electrical bill has become a staple of those who global warming deniers. (His bill is high because he has staff using the house as an office and because he buys more costly green power-- he isn’t running 27 electric dryer loads a day.)  Edwards is just the latest example, fed by the media pile-on. The original AP story even tried to make an issue of $75 charges to an Iowa Beauty Salon (adding the not so subtle implication that anyone who goes to a “beauty salon” is less than a real man). It turned out to be for TV makeup, something stations insist on even for non-celebrity guests so the lights won’t make them look like creatures out of Night of the Living Dead.  So the issue isn’t Edwards’s haircut, but how to respond to the lies and exaggerations that now masquerade as politics.

It’s a credit to Edwards that he didn’t just scapegoat the staffer who lined up the unkind cut. But given the debasement of our current political culture, he can’t just ignore it when Republicans continue to pound away. It’s good that he can joke about the incident. But so long as the Republicans keep trying to hang it on him as a key framing issue, he needs to keep putting it in its context. Maybe he could poke fun of it on The Daily Show. He could definitely get a direct response up on his website where it will come up on the search engines--instead of requiring someone mining through two dozen pages to piece things together. (Gore should do this on his site in terms the pseudo-issue of his electricity use—it’s similarly difficult to find a direct explanation in a single accessible place). I’m not suggesting Edwards drop his core stands to turn his campaign into a 24/7 politics of hair channel. But so long as prominent Republicans continue to use the image, he needs both to neutralize the incident as much as possible. That means continuing to publicly laugh at it. It also means talking about how it fits the larger patterns of Republican character attacks and our more general cultural focus on the politics of personality over discussion of what our prospective leaders might actually stand for. He needs to make clear that those making such issues their focus do so because they have no vision to get this country out of the disasters their policies have helped create. Edwards needs to get that response out in the media, on the web, and in every possible venue.

In a culture that wasn’t so distracted to death, and where men like Karl Rove weren’t  weaving a constant fabric of distortions, the issues like the Edwards haircut would be irrelevant. But until American voters unequivocally reject such manufactured distractions, candidates can’t prevail against these kinds of attacks by simply ignoring them. They need to respond as clearly, comprehensively, and saliently as possible, while highlighting the bankruptcy of the politics represented by those who would promote them. Only then will they have a chance to address the real issues that we face.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See   To receive his monthly articles email with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles