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.]