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The populist's $400 haircuts point to fake authenticity

The Baltimore Sun

I get my hair cut at this place called Tight-N-Up.

It has pretty much all the basic barbershop amenities. You've got your TV, you've got your back issues of Sports Illustrated and Jet, you've got your spirited debates about sports, politics and music. Best of all, you've got a price tag on the sunny side of reality: Give the barber a twenty and you'll get change.

I invite John Edwards to drop by sometime.

We learned recently that the Democratic presidential aspirant paid $400 each for two haircuts in California. He says he's embarrassed by the revelation and promises to reimburse his campaign.

I asked my barber, Clinton Truesdale, what extras he might throw in to justify charging a customer four bills for a trim. "I'd go home and cook his family dinner," he said. "Ask him if there was anything else he needed me to do. Four hundred dollars for a haircut?"

Yup. But then, Mr. Edwards' trim was by Torrenueva Hair Designs of Beverly Hills. And see, any time your barbershop is called "Hair Designs," get ready to pay out the wazoo. Add the words "of Beverly Hills" and it's time to raid the kids' college fund.

Can you say hoity-toity?

Granted, Mr. Edwards is a wealthy man, and he can pay whatever he wants for a trim. But those of us in the cheap seats are likewise entitled to think his pricey coif sends a message jarringly at odds with the populist theme of Mr. Edwards' campaign. After all, this is the guy who likes to style himself as the "son of a millworker," standing up for the common man.

The common man, not to put too fine a point on it, doesn't pay $400 for a trim.

I'm reminded of a scene I once saw in a movie. I can't recall it verbatim, but it goes something like this: First guy says that today's woman is looking for authenticity in a man. Second guy says, "Authenticity? I can fake that."

There is a lot of fake authenticity out there these days. Perhaps you remember the headlines about post-Katrina e-mails from aides to Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. As he was ostensibly managing one of the great disasters of American history, Mr. Brown's people were offering fashion advice designed to make him "look more hard-working." As citizens of her state were drowning and dying, one of Ms. Blanco's aides e-mailed another: "I have some great Liz Claiborne sports clothes that look kind of Eddie Bauer, but with class, but would bring Blanco down to the level of getting to work."

I will admit that I am too fashion-challenged to even know what that means. For that matter, I have no idea what distinguishes a $400 clip job from a $15 one.

But I do know a con when I see one. And in politics, I see them all the time. We are courted by blow-dried, focus-grouped, stage-managed, photo-opped, sloganeering, false-smiling, hand-clasping, back-slapping would-be leaders who say they feel our pain and understand our concerns and maybe sometimes they do - but all too often, it seems apparent they feel little and understand less. Superficiality gleams in their perfect teeth and scripted lines. They work hard to make style look just like substance.

I like to think real substance doesn't need the help, that authentic authenticity will always find a way to make itself known. But maybe such thinking is just a quaint relic of the days before media consultants, 24/7 news cycles and would-be leaders sold like dish detergent.

Still, 400 bucks? For a haircut.

If you see John Edwards, tell him I know where he can get a trim for a lot less. If he plays his cards right, he might even get dinner out of the deal.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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