Saturday, January 30, 2010

DECEPTION: The Lessons of John Edwards

When I think of John Edwards, I am reminded of a 1967 film, “Guide for the Married Man.” In one scene, Ed (played by Walter Matthau) tells Paul (played by Robert Morse) that if his wife ever accuses him of cheating, “Deny, deny, deny.” Denial and deception are what John Edwards is all about. This week’s John Edwards headline (there’s something new every week about this guy) is that Elizabeth met the lovechild, and finally decided she had had enough. They’re now legally separated.

This is one of the more extreme stories of our time. We’ve seen sleaze and/or really poor judgment before (Bill Clinton?), but the American public has not had the John Edwards experience until now. Edwards was running for President as Mr. America, when behind the scenes he referred to some of his constituents as “fat rednecks,” instructed an aide to “handle it” when he found out his mistress was pregnant, and later made a sex tape with her. All of this occurred just as Elizabeth Edwards was battling cancer. Somehow John Edwards convinced himself that we Americans would not see beyond the façade. We did. We do. He’s a low life.

What’s the lesson here? I think there are all kinds of messages that come through this story. For one thing, if you’re a high profile person today, and you consciously decide to do something stupid, the prolific nature of digital media is probably going to get you.The very media you depend on to market yourself to the country will be that which sends you into obscurity. This is just the story that media hungers for today. It has all of the ingredients: Politics, sex, tragedy, cheating, lying and deception. You could not make this up. Edwards underestimated the media, the risk he was taking and the collective wisdom of the American people.

But there are bigger lessons to be learned here for American voters. Edwards had the kind of movie star good looks and Clintonesque charisma that intoxicated voters. He preached a grass roots, populist-like agenda so appealing to middle America. He seemed to be ‘one of us,’ even though we knew of his $400 haircuts, 25,000-square-foot estate and multi-millionaire status. None of it mattered when we saw him announce his candidacy in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans outside of a house he was helping to restore from Hurricane Katrina. The lesson is age old: look beyond the obvious. What is behind the carefully coiffed and rehearsed image? As voters, we may have to demand a more intrusive investigation of our candidates. The new age debate about privacy may have to come to a halt at campaign time, and we may simply have to insist that we know more of a candidate’s personal life.

Had we done more digging, we would have uncovered the fact that Edwards was something of a high class ambulance chaser in his earlier life. He was a plaintiff’s attorney who represented a number of people who brought suits against doctors and hospitals after their children had been born with defects due to alleged mistakes made in the delivery room. Edwards made tens of millions of dollars with these cases, and legend has it that he was very dramatic in the courtroom. The story is told that in one of his closing arguments, he actually brought up the subject of his own son, who was killed in a car accident at age 16. There wasn’t a dry eye in the jury box. With his distinctive Southern accent and ability to deceive, Edwards was a powerhouse attorney, and one who collected one-third of each plaintiff’s favorable judgment. In some cases those judgments went as high as $25 million. You know that guy in your own community who goes on TV and says, “Hurt in a car accident? Get all you deserve and get it fast?” Essentially, that was John Edwards, and some of us might have cringed at his aggressive, manipulative courtroom tactics.

Had the media or even private citizens groups dug a bit deeper into Edwards’ personal life, we may have discovered the fact that Elizabeth Edwards was as ambitious as or more so than John. Now we know how badly she wanted to be First Lady. So badly that she stumped smilingly with Edwards on the campaign trail, never letting her image or her demeanor belie her rage about the affair she knew Edwards was having with Rielle Hunter. In the much ballyhooed, recently released book “Game Change,” authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann claim, “…that there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing.” Andrew Young, the aide who Edwards enlisted to pretend he was the father of Hunter’s child, paints a duplicitous picture of Elizabeth in his new book, “The Politician.” She comes off as temperamental, controlling and prone to histrionics. A recent piece in the New York Times seems to further that impression.

Does it matter to us, the voters, if Edwards cheats on his wife and lies about it, and that his wife is not what she seems? It does. We were supposed to have learned our lesson years ago from the Richard Nixon debacle. As it turns out, his own words revealed that he was racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic. We needed to know that, but we didn’t until he was dead. These are not the John Kennedy days, when a Presidential candidate can carry on secret trysts with lots of women and the press knows about it, but does not report it. We’re in the digital age. The press owes us full disclosure, and deep investigation. And we owe ourselves the discipline to pay attention to a candidate’s behavior and character. Had the stars aligned themselves just a bit off center in 2008, John Edwards would be President of the United States right now, moral warts and all. Presumably his secret squeeze and love child would be safely ensconced in an undisclosed location. Elizabeth Edwards would likely be berating the White House staff, just as she reportedly did to her husband’s campaign staff. And who would suffer most for their personal indiscretions and personality flaws? That would be you and me.

No comments: