Thursday, August 14, 2008
It's hard to recall a political burial as fast and cold as that of John Edwards. After all, the former North Carolina senator had been a serious contender for president until a few months ago and possibly for VP until last week. Had his cheesy affair not surfaced, he would have commanded a choice speaking slot at the Democrats' convention.
The tabloids and cable television are still having fun with the story, but the more serious news outlets express little sense of tragedy in Edwards' demise or even interest in it. Respectable media had long ignored the sordid details being reported in the National Enquirer, but not to protect Edwards. They just didn't care enough to check them out.
Why would this be for the man who had finished second in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, ahead of Hillary Clinton?
The reason is that the John Edwards story never quite held together. As a trial lawyer, Edwards had ridden the frustrations of the poor to fabulous wealth. But one could never be sure that, as a politician, his populist spiel wasn't part of a plan for further self-enrichment. He seemed to love money too much.
Last year, the Edwards family moved into a new 28,200-square-foot manse, the biggest and most expensive residence in North Carolina's Orange County. John's perfectly tailored suits and famous $400 haircut spoke of extreme self-pampering. In short, the sleek, rich lawyer in tasseled loafers clashed with the tribune of the oppressed.
Rich people can represent the poor. The downtrodden adored Franklin D. Roosevelt. And there's the tradition of country boys flaunting their newfound wealth. But while singer Alan Jackson can pose in ripped jeans and also occupy a baronial spread, a people's politician can't live in splendor without criticism. (Ask Jackson's Nashville neighbor Al Gore.)
I confess that I admired Edwards' "Two Americas" message. Here was someone willing to talk about bottom fifth, a group deemed politically radioactive by many Democrats and nearly all Republicans. Edwards defended this sad demographic all by his lonesome, as Clinton and Barack Obama made a mad dash for the middle class.
Edwards had laid out a detailed health plan that would have covered all Americans. And he talked about how it would be funded, through higher taxes on capital gains.
And yes, there was something touching about his seeming devotion to a wife suffering with breast cancer. With the proper wet-eyed apology, John's straying, by itself, wouldn't have been a candidacy killer. Americans don't care about casual infidelity the way they used to. The nature of the adultery, however, still matters.
As so often happens in these cases, the "other woman" is less attractive than the cheated-upon spouse. But the unflattering comparisons of Rielle Hunter with Elizabeth Edwards go well beyond looks. Hunter was an obvious flake with a reported history of drug use. She was a party girl and a blabbermouth -- in other words, the worst possible mistress for a politician.
There was no way she was going to wreck the Edwards marriage. But what about the candidate's relationship with the supporters who had worked long hours for little or no pay on his campaign? What does it say about what he thinks of them?
It says, "Not much." It says that Edwards thought he could be as sloppy and self-indulgent as he cared to be. Mentally, he lived in a gated compound, and the little people beyond its walls were invisible.
So despite an appealing message, the cracks were always visible in the Edwards edifice. That's why astute observers were not surprised when it came crashing down. They walked around the smoking ruins and never looked back.
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