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Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

I wrote about the John Edwards affair a few days ago.  The next phase of this scandal is the book by close Edwards aide Andrew Young who took the blame for the affair with Rielle Hunter and for impregnating her. He since had a falling out with Edwards, and written a tell-all (to pile two clichéd phrases together) – so his most sensationalist claims should be treated with skepticism. From the perspective of the “story” of this scandal though, it was hard to see how the Edwards affair could get more tawdry – how Young’s account what had come before. But as reported by Louise Radnofsky and Susan Davies in the Wall Street Journal, Young clearly has advanced the story even further!

Young describes his alleged discovery of a compromising videotape of Edwards and a naked, pregnant lover, identified by Young as Hunter. “It was like watching a traffic pileup occur in slow motion — it was repelling but also transfixing,” he writes.

I can see the tabloid headline now: Edwards Makes Preggo Porn With New Baby Mama While Wife Dying of Incurable Cancer.

It used to be said that only 2 things could entirely destroy a political career: being found with a live boy or a dead woman. Edwards has apparently added a 3rd category.

[Image by alexdecarvalho licensed under Creative Commons.]

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The Edwards Morality Tale

Monday, January 25th, 2010

One of the most interesting stories of the past two years has been the tale of John Edwards. In 2004, several essays by William Saletan (here, here, and here) as well as his forceful speeches, positive tone, and life story convinced me to support Edwards. He was passionate. His message was upbeat, tapping into the hope of the American dream, but he acknowledged how far it had fallen. He campaigned on the theme of the economic restoration of the American dream – the same theme that imbued Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. But it is also a theme that has haunted liberalism since the 1970s – as it has sought to recreate the economic conditions that lead to the stable middle class of the 1950s and 1960s, a kind of reactionary nostalgia. Whether this is the correct view of history or not, it is excellent politics. By 2008, Edwards had doubled down on this – and was running a policy-intensive, netroots focused campaign on economic issues. It was only upon hearing him answer Tim Russert’s questions on Iraq and national security in 2007 that I finally abandoned him as a candidate for 2008.

But in the meantime, he himself was apparently changing – was being corrupted by his success, was becoming greedy for attention and privilege:

[E]veryone who met Edwards was struck by how down-to-earth he seemed. He had fewer airs about him than most other wealthy trial lawyers, let alone most senators.

Many of his friends started noticing a change – the arrival of what one of his aides referred to as “the ego monster” – after he was nearly chosen by Al Gore to be his running mate in 2000: the sudden interest in superficial stuff to which Edwards had been oblivious before, from the labels on his clothes to the size of his entourage. But the real transformation occurred in the 2004 race, and especially during the general election. Edwards reveled in being inside the bubble: the Secret Service, the chartered jet, the press pack, the swarms of factotums catering to his every whim. And the crowds! The ovations! The adoration! He ate it up. In the old days, when his aides asked how a rally had gone, he would roll his eyes and self-mockingly say, “Oh, they love me.” Now we would bound down from the stage beaming and exclaim, without the slightest shred of irony, “They looooove me!”

As this “ego monster” took over his personality, Edwards met Rielle Hunter – who, aside from offering herself sexually, stroked his ego. And so, Edwards apparently fell in love with the idea of himself that Rielle Hunter presented to him. This allowed her past all the numerous safeguards that Edwards had built to keep himself from being embroiled in any Clintonian affairs and added to his apparent descent into hubris.

The Edwards story has advanced a bit – with tawdry detail after tawdry detail leaking out over the last months. From the book proposal by close aide Andrew Young (who initially took responsibility for the affair with Rielle Hunter) claiming that Edwards comforted her by promising that “after his wife died, he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band” to the revelations in Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (excerpted for New York magazine) to the most recent acknowledgement that despite his earlier “confession” he was in fact the father of the “love child” with Hunter.

Even with these scandals under the surface, he still was determined to get some prominent post in the government. He was so cocooned, he believed he could get past all these stories and that Obama could appoint him to a top position:

“John will settle for attorney general,” Hindery e-mailed Daschle.

Daschle shook his head. How desperate is this guy?

“Leo, this isn’t good for John,” Daschle replied. “This is ridiculous. It’s going to be ambassador to Zimbabwe next.”

When Obama heard about the suggested quid pro quo, he was incredulous. That’s crazy, he told Axelrod. If I were willing to make a deal like that, I shouldn’t be president.

South Carolina brought an end to the Edwards campaign; after finishing a derisory third in the primary, he dropped out of the race a few days later. Yet for months that spring, as Obama and Clinton engaged in their epic tussle, Edwards continued in his Monty Hall mode, attempting to try to claim some reward from either candidate for his backing.

The trouble with Obama, from Edwards’s point of view, was his refusal to get transactional. When Edwards told Obama that he wanted him to make poverty a centerpiece of his agenda, Obama airily replied, Yeah, yeah, year, I care about all that stuff. Clinton, by contrast, proposed that she and Edwards do a poverty tour together, even suggested that Edwards would have “a role” in her administration. Edwards still had his eye on becoming attorney general, and thought the odds of getting that plum were better with Hillary than with Obama. But after South Carolina, the chances of Clinton claiming the nomination just kept falling – and Edwards didn’t want to back a loser.

So Edwards sat there, perched on the fence, squandering his leverage. Making the situation all the more absurd was the birth in late February of Hunter’s baby, a girl she named Frances Quinn – a development that Edwards somehow convinced himself would not preclude his being nominated and confirmed to run the Department of Justice.

Finally, in May, after suffering a blowout loss to Clinton in the West Virginia primary, Obama phoned Edwards and briefly managed to pierce his bubble of delusion. Tomorrow is the last day when your endorsement is going to make a difference, he told Edwards. And what would Edwards get in return? Not much more than a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic convetion.

At 1:15 a.m., Obama sent an e-mail to his staff: Edwards is a go.

I normally like a good scandal which brings a fast-inflating figure down to size (though I really hate the media’s moralizing tone in covering these scandals.) But this story has the feel of a pathetic side figure in a Shakespearean comedy – a decent but not great man undone by his own egotism.

[This tremendous photograph by alexdecarvalho licensed under Creative Commons.]

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What passes for journalism today is faux-outrage presented without any perspective.

Monday, January 11th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]Reading the New York Times over the weekend, I came across a story that neatly symbolized one way the mainstream media perverts the news:

Mark Leibovich has an almost self-reflectively parodic digression in his article on the Peter Orszag “scandal”:

“Everyone feels the need to say, ‘I’m really sorry I have to ask you about this’ and ‘I’m only carrying out orders from my boss,’ ” Mr. Baer said. (For the record: this reporter was only acting on orders from his boss.) And, of course, the Very Serious Media are not writing the Orszag Love-Child Story, they are merely writing about the media frenzy surrounding it.

The race to cover the scandal-of-the-day is one of the worst aspects of contemporary journalism – but the Orszag scandal is perhaps a fluffy variation of this dangerous habit. Where the danger lies is in how it affects political fortunes and policy. I am all for scandal-mongering about public officials – and invading their personal lives but only – as I wrote before in defense of indiscretion: “If the media wants to report on some lewd scandal, they can at least do their audience the favor of avoiding the hypocritical moral posturing and just revel in the tawdriness of it. It would at least be honest.” This faux-outrage – this sense that we must hold public officials to some imagined moral standard that has little to do with their actual job – is merely a crude excuse to allow “journalists” to cover tabloid gossip. Tabloid gossip is fun and interesting – but when it is always framed as a serious judgment on some public figure or policy – it disfigures the political conversation. You get the insanity of people claiming Bill Clinton is a bad president because he was an unfaithful husband. You get people trying to claim Tiger Woods held himself up as some moral role model when in fact, he just claimed he was a really good golfer. You get outrage over any statement deemed “insensitive” – from Harry Reid to Sonia Sotomayor to Trent Lott.

And much worse, when it comes to judging policies and legislation, journalists follow the same mentality – picking out scandalous elements at the expense of understanding what is going on. Death panels! Stimulus money going to “imaginary” (i.e. mistyped) districts! Emails from climate change scientists that “prove” it is a hoax! Bailouts to health insurance companies! Giant vampire squids searching for cash!

These stories are presented to the public as the story when in fact they are mere sideshows – hence the name given to the media-political atmosphere that arose under Bill Clinton and has remained until today: The Freak Show. This scandal-mongering creates reporting on policy that is entertaining but conveys a fundamentally limited view of what is actually being done and proposed. As Ezra Klein has pointed out:

[N]ewspapers work very hard to report things that are true, but they are less concerned with whether the overall impression from their reporting is a true impression.

The end result that we read day after day is faux-outrage presented without any perspective – with the citizenry being blocked from actually knowing what is going on behind the billowing smoke of scandal.

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Posted in Criticism, Politics, Scandal-mongering, The Media, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

Eliot Spitzer’s Comeback

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

In the past few weeks, Eliot Spitzer has been all around us. His Slate columns have become a must-read. He was against AIG before it was cool. He was railing against the excesses of Wall Street while everyone else was enjoying the fake boom. 

If it were not for the scandal that forced him to resign, this would have been Eliot Spitzer’s time. Vice Presidential buzz would be growing; he would be one of the go-to guys that Obama would call to give him cover as he dealt with Wall Street. It is based on this that David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy listed Spitzer as one of the “losers of the week” saying that:

[T]he A.I.G. scandal and the collapse of Wall Street could have been [Spitzer’s] apotheosis, the moment the howling dogs of ambition in his breast might have finally gotten enough red meat of press exposure.

But despite his current disgraced status – and no doubt in part because of it – he has been able to talk more candidly about the “real scandal” of the AIG bailout: that it “has been a way to hide an enormous second round of cash to the same group that had received TARP money already.”

This sets up Spitzer to now say, “sunlight is the best disinfectant“! Ironic for a man brought down by too much sunlight.

I’m going to repeat what I said before – as the conventional wisdom states that the only things that can truly destroy a political career are “a dead woman or a live boy,” Spitzer will be back. Given the magnitude of this scandal, he may be back sooner than we expect. Interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show last week, his politic answer on whether he is planning to make a comeback as a media person made it clear he is still intent on winning back the public’s good graces.

His understated and calculated public appearances are not consistent with a man looking to become a media personality – he would want more appearances and try to adopt a more strident tone if this was his goal; they are not consistent with a man who is done with politics – as he does not have the gravitas and devil-may-care honestly and looseness that comes with this life decision; instead, he seems to be staging a comeback. He waited just over a year from his resignation before giving his first interview – despite the increasingly clear Wall Street scandal that he had been brewing. He’s focusing on policy, substance, and seriousness to avoid as much as possible talking about his past scandals. But his answer still have the slipperiness of a pol.

It’s only a matter of time before he runs for office again.

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Posted in Financial Crisis, Politics, Scandal-mongering | No Comments »

The Inherent Character Flaws of Politicians

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

From a blog post by Timothy Egan last week in the New York Times about Portland’s mayor:

But with the betrayal by Sam Adams, the city now offers an old lesson in timeless and tawdry human weakness. The story of Sam Adams is not about gay predators or gay anything, because Portland has seen this civic morality tale once before, with a heterosexual mayor.

It’s about why voters should never give their hearts over completely to politicians. As a class, they are inherently insecure — a character flaw at the base of all politicians, from Bill Clinton to Bob Packwood. And they lie, with rare exceptions — a hard thing to say at a time when the doors of possibility are open to leaders yet untarnished.

That’s an eternal lesson, though, as with all rules, there are rare exceptions.

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Posted in Politics, Prose, Scandal-mongering, The Opinionsphere | 5 Comments »

Irony Watch

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

As Justice Brandeis observed, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

So says the man whose governorship was felled by a bit too much sunlight on his sordrid sex life.

But an excellent new column by Eliot Spitzer in Slate on reforms to bring transparency to Wall Street.

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Posted in Economics, Financial Crisis, Politics, Scandal-mongering, The Opinionsphere | 1 Comment »

The Stages of Rumordom

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

From Mickey Kaus via Andrew Sullivan, a very astute observation of the life of a political rumor:

1) Too horrible and shocking; it can’t possibly be true.
It’s not true.
You can’t prove it’s true.
Why are you trying to prove it’s true?
It’s disgusting that you’ve proved it’s true.
What’s the big deal anyway?

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Posted in Election 2008, Humor, Politics, Scandal-mongering, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

The Crimes Behind Cindy McCain’s Fortune

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

[Photo courtesy of PaisleyPitbull licensed under Creative Commons.]

Cindy McCain – who was among the first people in the country to question Michelle Obama’s patriotism after Michelle’s poorly phrased comments in Wisconsin early this year – is now incredibly offended by Barack Obama’s suggestion that it is her husband’s fabulous wealth and opulent lifestyle that has made him less sensitive to the vast majority of Americans with only one home whose incomes have fallen despite the economy’s growth under the Bush administration. No – she apparently wants Obama to come up with another reason to explain away her husband’s doubling down on the economic policies of the Bush administration and calling for massive tax cuts for the biggest companies and the richest individuals while cutting taxes far less than Barack Obama would for 90% of Americans.1

To counter the suggestions that her fortune left her and John McCain out of touch, she defended her family’s fortune:

My father had nothing. He and my mother sold everything they had to raise $10,000. I’m proud of what my dad and my mother did and what they built and left me.  And I intend to carry their legacy as long as I can.
(Added after watching the complete interview): My father is the American dream!

She really makes it sound like there must be an inspiring story behind how James Hensley’s net worth went from $10,000.00 to over $200,000,000.00. It brings to mind Richard O’Connor, who, in writing how the oil barons created their vast fortunes, paraphrased the great storyteller Balzac:

Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime.

The corollary would be that behind a large fortune is a decent amount of crime.

The story of Cindy McCain’s father, James Hensley, begins when he ditched his first wife for a younger woman after returning from World War II a hero (Sound familiar?). He got involved with a character named Kemper Marley who is variously described as a rancher, a businessman, a murder suspect, and a top figure in organized crime in Arizona. While working for Marley, James Hensley and his brother were convicted of the felony offenses of concealing black market liquor sales and conspiracy. Later Cindy’s father was charged with falsifying records to evade taxes – although these charges were dismissed, no doubt due to the diligent work of one of Arizona’s top defense lawyers, William Rehnquist.

After getting through these legal difficulties in the early 1950s, the brothers Hensley bought a horse track – with several mobsters as silent partners. Cindy’s father, though, was yearning for a measure of respectability, and sold his stake in the track in the mid-1950s. Luckily for James Hensley, he got out just a few months before a statewide scandal focused on the track, making life difficult for his brother and all of the other owners. Hensley’s brother continued at the track and eventually was sent to prison in the late 1960s after he sold his portion of the track to Marley and a mob-connected front.

Meanwhile, Cindy’s father had decided to start a beer distributorship:

According to the official founding myth, Jim launched his own beer distributorship, Hensley & Company, in 1955, with the help of a $10,000 loan. (Unaccounted for is how a cash-strapped ex-convict would have secured the exclusive right to distribute Budweiser in Phoenix.) The distributorship became Hensley’s first step in a long march to respectability.

By most accounts, Cindy’s father worked hard to make his distributorship a success. And as Arizona began to grow in the sixties boom with millions of people moving to the southwest, Hensley’s beer distributorship grew with it – leading to the fortune now estimated in the hundreds of millions which financed John McCain’s start in politics and the McCain’s opulent lifestyle.

To wrap up this story, Cindy McCain says her father had nothing; and through hard work, his fortune is now worth hundreds of millions. But untold is that this fortune is based on gambling and liquor, mobsters and political connections, working hard and cutting corners, and always staying one step ahead of scandal and conviction. Because of his crimes, his connections and his hard work, he was able to provide Cindy McCain with a life of luxury. When the young Cindy wrecked her Porsche, her father bought her a Mercedes Benz. When she became a teacher and was criticized for driving a car that was too flashy, her father bought her a second car to drive to school. And of course, Cindy can’t imagine, even now, how anyone can get around Arizona without a private plane.

It’s easy to see how someone who has led the life that Cindy McCain has can believe that a little bit of hard work will get you a few hundred million – and how someone who’s father bought her a second car to keep the other teachers from making fun of her luxury car could fail to sympathize with the average American having trouble paying all of their bills. It’s not impossible for someone living such an opulent lifestyle to understand and advocate for the middle class and the poor – look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt – but if you are instead are insisting on economic policies that benefit the richest individuals and the biggest corporations – it’s hard not to see a connection.

It’s a bit rich2 of Cindy McCain to defend herself and her husband by invoking how hard her father worked for his fortune. And it’s yet another demonstration of how “in touch” she is with the concerns of most Americans.

N.B. This post was written in the midst of an obviously contentious election campaign – one in which I had strongly considered supporting Senator John McCain – as I’ve detailed elsewhere – but after careful evaluation, had come to the conclusion that Barack Obama was the only candidate suited to our current challenges. While I stand by the content of the post, in retrospect, the tone is a bit overheated. I don’t especially care where her fortune came from. The Kennedy fortune is widely rumored to have come from similarly shady sources – and I don’t hold it against them. But in the context of a campaign in which Obama’s every contact with a questionable individual was the subject of advertisements and smears by the McCain campaign, I found it astounding that this rather close contact with unsavory characters was mentioned in passing but not explored.


  1. Would she prefer Obama infer actual malice, placing ideology above country, or class warfare to explain away McCain’s insistence on screwing the middle class? []
  2. Referring to the 4th and 5th defintiions in the link. []

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Posted in Election 2008, McCain, Politics, Scandal-mongering | 16 Comments »

The PUMAs and Jerome Corsi

Friday, August 15th, 2008

To those Hillary supporters in the PUMA Movement who are crowing over this book, over how well-documented it is, and over how Hillary wouldn’t be susceptible to these charges, Corsi has a significant history of Hillary-bashing and raising baseless allegations about her.  To those other PUMAs who are echoing the questions based on Corsi’s loony allegations without citing the author – as he clearly is a nutcase – shame on you.

While any individual has any right to question and investigate any other individual’s life – by demanding that Obama disprove all the ridiculous allegations Corsi makes, you give more weight to Corsi’s work than it deserves. More important, the Obama campaign already released a 40 page rebuttal to various claims made in Corsi’s book – which I doubt any of the PUMAs who are echoing these claims have closely analyzed.

And if we are going to start investigating all of Corsi’s claims about significant public officials, Corsi accuses Hillary of running over people:

Hellary should resign and go away. What ever happened to the people she ran over with her car at Westchester Airport? Can’t anybody sue this b*tch?

Corsi also asks:

Anybody ask why HELLary couldn’t keep BJ Bill satisfied? Not lesbo or anything, is she?

Given Corsi’s history, I’m sure there are quite a few other ridiculous and baseless claims he has made about Hillary as well as any other Democrat.

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Posted in Election 2008, McCain, Obama, Politics, Scandal-mongering, The Clintons, The Opinionsphere | 2 Comments »

Casting Stones

Friday, August 8th, 2008

I think this President has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen.

From the statement of John Edwards in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton on February 12, 1999.

H/t Andrew Sullivan.

The old rule of politics is that a politician’s career isn’t done unless a politician is caught with:

a live boy or a dead girl.

Edwards releases this information on the Friday the Olympics begins and as a war breaks out between Russia and Georgia.  He obviously is still looking out for a future political career.

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Posted in Politics, Scandal-mongering | 2 Comments »

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