Sunday, July 2, 2006

Smiling John amid the geeks

He's back, sorta maybe: Smiling John Edwards, the emotional, effusive yin to John Kerry's cerebral yang in the 2004 presidential campaign, is testing the waters for ... something with a series of public appearances and stump speeches around the country. "Something" is the operative word, but it suggests more mystery than probably deserved: Edwards, who got generally high marks for his role in the 2004 run, has seen his name floated more than a few times as a possible contender for the presidency in 2008.

The faithful technologists who gathered on June 30 in Seattle to see Edwards speak had these facts in the back of their minds. The Gnomedex Technology Conference -- a gathering of bloggers, developers and others to discuss the evolution of Internet technologies -- was maybe the ideal non-campaign campaign stop for a possible candidate like Edwards, poised (maybe) to inherit the mantle of Web prescience bestowed (prematurely, it turned out) on Howard Dean in 2004.

To judge from the give-and-take between Edwards and the audience, as reported by Todd Bishop in Saturday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Edwasrds came across as a man earnestly trying to play down his past as conventional politician, a man who admitted to being a neophyte of the Internet, someone there as much to seek their validation as to extend them his own by way of conceding, through his very presence at the conference, how much he'll need them if he takes a run at the big chair in eighteen months or so.

One of the ways Edwards looked for what Bishop called "common ground with bloggers" was fairly refreshing: it was Edwards' admission of a desire to break out of the on-message box of political cannedspeak, to find the best kind of common ground: the candor and plain speaking that are the bedrock foundation of the blogosphere -- its very reason for being.

"I'm trying to retrain and recondition myself when I get asked a question to actually answer it," Edwards said. " ... The problem is that we're so trained and so conditioned over a long period of time that being normal and real and authentic requires you to shed that conditioning. It is not an easy thing to do."

John Edwards wouldn't be the first politician to work at creating an emotional connection with his audience -- hell, Bill Clinton did it twice, successfully, and George Bush basically aw-shucksed his way into the White House in 2000. Edwards, however, may be the first to honestly admit to the particulars of the process of pursuing that connection.

Some in attendance at Gnomedex weren't impressed, but for the wrong reasons. Bishop quotes conference attendee Dave Winer, in one of the more cynical takes on Edwards' appearance. "Edwards is the skillful politician -- incredibly adept, very well-vetted. Didn't say a single thing, merely reflected back to us what he thought we wanted to hear. ... Not a whole lot actually happened here."

Which begs the question of what Winer was expecting when he discovered that Edwards would be at the conference. Sooner or later, Dave, politicians talk politics. It's what they do. You want nonstop techie talk, go chat up Tim Berners-Lee.

But hold up a minute; maybe Winer's right. The P-I's Bishop observed that Edwards was practically a ghost after his keynote speech. "Edwards arrived shortly before speaking and left immediately afterward," the P-I reported, noticing what other people had noticed as well.

Natala Menezes of Seattle noticed. "I think if you're going to attend a conference like this as a newcomer, you can't just speak and leave," she said, revealing a fundamental disconnect between Edwards' message and his actions: By indulging the tendencies toward shark motion that are basic to every presidential campaign -- declared or otherwise -- John Edwards undercut the very basis of his appeal to the blognoscenti. His call for connection and authenticity was neutralized by the force of his own political instincts: Don't stop, keep moving, where's the next speech, where's the next microphone?

Gnomedex was almost certainly populated by a fairly liberal crowd; maybe Edwards figured he was preaching to the choir. But for the conference geeks, it's still to be seen whether Edwards will really make that connection, short of showing up on the campaign trail wearing tattoos and a soul patch.

And how will Edwards connect with the rest of us? That's not just a question for him but for the Democratic Party, a body of possible contenders who need to face a fact: Right now, months before the midterms, two years before the big race, they're not really looking for Bill Clinton. They're looking for Leonard Zelig.

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