Anecdotal Hit Job

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I believe in the usefulness and validity of the telling anecdote — the seemingly small story that reveals a broader truth about a politician or other subject. But sometimes anecdotes are misused — usually to sling mud. Such is the case with this piece about John Edwards by the editorial page editor of The State, South Carolina’s biggest newspaper. The editorial pretends to explain how its author, Brad Warthen, came to decide that Edwards “is a big phony”. Warthen lists three anecdotes — “Strike One,” “Strike Two,” and Strike Three” — none of which occured since the last presidential election — that nevertheless prove to him that Edwards is faking it when he claims to care about, and to have dedicated his professional life to, helping the poor and neglected in American society.

But the anecdotes are flimsy concoctions at best. Only one of the three is personally observed by the author. The other two are stories told to him by others. And all three — even if true — say almost nothing substantive about Edwards’ true motivations as a politician. Warthen’s article is a hit job masquerading as a reported editorial.

Whether or not John Edwards is authentic is a fair question. Joe Biden, in one of the best lines of any debate so far, made clear the other night in Chicago that he doesn’t think so. But Warthen’s editorial is as unpersuasive as it is unsubstantiated.