Last Friday I watched the one-hour interview of Andrew Young on ABC’s 20/20. The interview, like the book it promotes, recounts the story of Young’s rise and fall, from John Edwards’s high-minded factotum in the 1990s, to a trusted aid on Edwards’s senatorial staff, to a powerful operative on Edwards’s 2004 presidential and vice-presidential campaigns, to the keeper of Edwards’s dark secrets and the chaperone of his pregnant mistress during the 2008 presidential campaign. The story culminates in Young’s public claim to have fathered Edwards’s child after Edward's relationship with Rielle Hunter was disclosed by the National Enquirer. Having been abandoned by Edwards and squandered his last vestige of personal dignity, Young was left with no recourse but to market his book and himself on national television.
In our day and age, there’s nothing unusual about someone's turning tabloid journalism into a vehicle of self-promotion. What captured my attention was ABC’s spectacular success at using Edwards’s sexual indiscretions to impugn his liberalism. The juxtaposition of Young’s revelations with shots of Edwards announcing his 2008 presidential candidacy against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation made him look like an eight-year-old dressing up as Bobby Kennedy on Halloween. Exposing Edwards’s moralistic liberalism as a shallow affectation was probably ABC's payback for his turning the network into a platform for disinformation when the scandal first broke nationally. The revenge sure looked sweet.
We’re used to seeing middle-age horniness bring down Republican conservatives—think of Larry Craig, Mark Foley and Mark Sanford. That’s partly a function of their socially conservative politics. Having made the personal political, the disparity between their own sexual conduct and their political professions reflects on the authenticity of their conservatism. Granted, Edwards invited charges of hypocrisy by carrying on at the same time he and his wife were trafficking politically on her cancer diagnosis. But that reveals him, at most, as a cynically ambitious politician, not as an ideological fraud.
Think of the two politicians that Edwards has emulated shamelessly. He came to Washington in 1998 as a new and improved Bill Clinton, a personable southern New Democrat without the biographical baggage. By the time he commenced his 2008 presidential election, Edwards had morphed into a Bobby Kennedy for the digital age, with all his talk about the “two Americas.” From what we know so far about Edwards, he’s a rank amateur next to Clinton and Kennedy when it comes to adultery. Yet their ideological reputations survived revelations about their private life. Why hasn’t Edward’s reputation for full-throated liberalism enjoyed the same immunity?
A rough and ready comparison of the political careers of Edwards and Bobby Kennedy suggests the beginnings of an answer. Both careers feature an abrupt ideological metamorphosis triggered by a sudden change of heart about a war once ardently supported and the discovery of the moral urgency of poverty.
But note the crucial difference. Kennedy moved left when he visibly discovered appalling facts to which he and most of his ideological comrades hadn’t paid much attention while his brother was president, viz., the devastation caused by our military exertions in Vietnam and the abject poverty of Americans in the rural south and the inner cities of the north. He signaled his ideological transformation by doing his best to direct everyone's attention to those facts.
Compare Edwards’s discovery of the immorality of the Iraq war and poverty. Here’s how he announced his opposition to Iraq war in a Washington Post op-ed in late 2005 (my emphasis):
You’ll notice that Edwards didn’t say, and to my knowledge has never said, exactly what he was mistaken about. He’s never enunciated any liberal principle that should have condemned the war in his eyes from the outset had he only thought to consult it. The point of the exercise was revealed when Edwards remarked that whether Hillary Clinton should own up to the same mistake was “between her and her conscience.”"I was wrong. Almost three years ago we went into Iraq to remove what we were told -- and what many of us believed and argued -- was a threat to America. But in fact we now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction when our forces invaded Iraq in 2003. The intelligence was deeply flawed and, in some cases, manipulated to fit a political agenda.
"It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002. I take responsibility for that mistake. It has been hard to say these words because those who didn't make a mistake -- the men and women of our armed forces and their families -- have performed heroically and paid a dear price. The world desperately needs moral leadership from America, and the foundation for moral leadership is telling the truth."
Edwards was drawing an implied comparison between his unabashed truth-telling and the artful prevarications of the woman who was then still his major competition for the Democratic presidential nomination. He wasn’t bringing any appalling facts about Iraq to anyone’s attention. He was just making sure that liberal primary voters knew that he was more appalled by familiar facts about the war than Hillary was. Edwards's new position was less about Iraq than it was about him.
The same goes for his use of post-Katrina New Orleans as campaign scenery. No one needed to be reminded that New Orleans was still in a bad way. The point was to show Edwards, decked out in his flattering denims with a hammer in his hand, being visibly moved. Again, it wasn't that New Orleans, like a lot of places, is in appalling shape; it was that he was especially appalled.
Like the Iraq war, New Orleans was just another prop in Edwards’s theatre of self-disclosure. No wonder his liberal authenticity vanished when the curtain receded far enough to reveal the disparity between how he displays himself and how he really is.
Update: A couple of anonymous readers raised the issue of whether Edwards's narcissism is exceptional for a politcian, and one of them reminded me of this: