Hypocrisy, hubris and Rielle Hunter.
For a man whose first—and only—winning election campaign was waged against an inarticulate septuagenarian hog farmer, John Edwards made quite a splash when he arrived in Washington in 1999 as the new junior senator from North Carolina. Lauch Faircloth (the hog farmer in question) had been anything but a formidable opponent, and Mr. Edwards did seem like a fast-talking opportunist, the quintessential trial-lawyer-turned-politician. But the members of the liberal establishment swooned—pundits and politicians alike. They found themselves charmed by his enthusiasm, his good looks, his populist appeal. Here, they said, was a younger Bill Clinton without the baggage, a potential standard bearer who could help the Democratic Party reclaim the middle ground that Newt Gingrich had seized for the GOP with his mid-1990s “revolution.”
No one swooned more than Andrew Young, whose memoir is aptly called “The Politician,” referring to the man he served rather than himself. A failed restaurateur who had gone back to school for a law degree and then taken a job with the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, Mr. Young was just over 30 when he first saw Mr. Edwards in action. He was so impressed by an Edwards campaign speech that he turned to his wife, Cheri, and said: “This guy is going to be president one day. . . . I’m going to find a way to work for him.” Cheri, who emerges as one of the few sensible, decent people in this sadly tangled tale, had a different reaction. “She looked at me, unimpressed, rolled her eyes, and said, ‘Let’s go to the beach.’ ”
But her husband was smitten. He would spend the next decade as a trusted—and all too trusting—aide to a man he idolized as “one of the most promising leaders of a generation.” Mr. Young became a specimen of a familiar political type: the dedicated, servile staffer who subsists on the reflected power and glory of his boss, half-martyr, half-parasite. Mr. Young’s duties included slaving away as domestic servant, errand boy and babysitter for the Edwards family in addition to working in the senator’s office on Capitol Hill. Mr. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, assured Mr. Young that he was “like family.” Certainly Mr. Young subordinated his own family to the whims of his employers, sustained by a dream of accompanying them to the White House. “I was just a young, ambitious guy who saw a real opportunity in Edwards,” he writes.
If Mr. Young had been a better judge of character, it might not have taken him 10 years to wake up. Signs of Mr. Edwards’s hypocrisy and opportunism were abundant: “On many nights, my phone would ring and I would hear the senator on the other end. Sometimes he sounded petty and irritated by ordinary events. He especially hated making appearances at county fairs, where ‘fat rednecks try to shove food down my face. I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?’ ”
Staffer-adulation would not have mattered much if Mr. Edwards hadn’t been taken so seriously by the power brokers of the Democratic Party, who kept hoping, as did Mr. Edwards himself, that he would break-out into national stardom: He ran for the 2004 presidential nomination, eventually becoming John’s Kerry’s running mate on the Democrats’ losing ticket. He was considered a front-runner for 2008 and was holding his own in the early polls until Nemesis arrived on the scene—ready to punish hubris—in the form of a shopworn, blond New Age enthusiast named Rielle Hunter.
By early 2008, rumors of Ms. Hunter’s affair with Mr. Edwards were making their way into a subculture of gossip-purveyors and political observers. It is clear from Mr. Young’s memoir that the Edwards staff knew what was going on and chose to deny it to any reporter who pushed for answers. Not that the mainstream media did much pushing—sexual misconduct was too “low” for respectable publications, even though they had served as a conveyor belt for Mr. Edwards’s heroic (and false) campaign narrative: that of a loyal husband attentive to his cancer-stricken wife.
It took the National Enquirer and a few bloggers to break the Hunter story. Mr. Edwards called the allegations “tabloid trash.” When Ms. Hunter’s pregnancy made the news, he persuaded Mr. Young to “take the bullet” by claiming to be the father—something Mr. Young now regrets. One could say that Mr. Young’s memoir is one long expression of sincere regret and shame for the role he played in Mr. Edwards’s public career.
Still, one man’s tragedy is another man’s farce. In its account of scandal-frenzy, “The Politician” begins to read like a collaboration between Tennessee Williams and P.G. Wodehouse—with Mr. and Mrs. Young and their three children and a very pregnant, very out-of-it Ms. Hunter secluded under the same roof, receiving abusive voice mails from an increasingly hysterical Elizabeth Edwards and being alternately schmoozed and abused by Mr. Edwards himself, with howling packs of reporters in hot pursuit.
In the end, the truth came out—as it was bound to. (Someday a staffer will serve his boss by reminding him of this inevitable fact.) Mr. Edwards admitted that he was the father of Ms. Hunter’s daughter—after a succession of lying scenarios collapsed and his candidacy, his career and his marriage were reduced to rubble. Perhaps it all goes back to Mr. Edwards’s trial-lawyer days. After dazzling juries for so long, he thought he could talk his way out of anything.
We are reminded by Mr. Young that one of Mr. Edwards’s early boosters was the late Ted Kennedy, who “saw almost unlimited potential in this young, energetic, well-spoken, good-looking Southerner.” In a conversation with Mr. Young, Mr. Kennedy waxed sentimental about Washington in the early 1960s: “It used to be civilized. The media was on our side. We’d get our work done by one o’clock and by two we were at the White House chasing women. We got the job done, and the reporters focused on the issues. . . . It was civilized.” We now know that Mr. Edwards’s idea of civilization was much the same as Kennedy’s.
Mr. Bakshian worked as a White House aide to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
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