Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dirt bag.

A yellowed dictionary is within arm’s length, as is a thesaurus. And I have a 20-year career as a writer, full of analogies and published articles on which to draw, for terms to describe John Edwards. I’ve interviewed him personally as well. But after you read Andrew Young’s “The Politician,” the dishy but solidly sourced insider’s account of the political career of the former vice presidential candidate, the word hanging in the fore, refusing to give up its front row seat in my assessment of Edwards’ actions is “dirt bag.”

Young, whose veracity is in doubt in this sad chronicling because he was complicit in The Big Lie to protect Edwards, saved emails, voice mails and other sources with regard to John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards and the pol’s paramour, the extraordinarily eccentric Rielle Hunter.

A graduate of the University of North Carolina and the Wake Forest University School of Law whose own father was the chaplain at Duke University, Young served in Edwards’ Senate and presidential races as a go-to guy, a fixer, a trouble-shooter of matters large and small. His takeaway on Edwards: a “remorseless and predatory creature” and “toxically narcissistic.”

“No one in the world knows more about these events, and more about the real John and Elizabeth Edwards, than I do,” Young writes. “I was the man who took the bullet for then-candidate Edwards by falsely claiming I had fathered the child he had with a mysterious woman named Rielle Hunter.”

The career-ending revelations about Edwards, who fathered a child with his lover, Rielle Hunter, and engaged in reckless behavior during pursuit of the highest offices in the nation, should be particularly offensive to Iowans. Iowans helped make Edwards. Yes, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, but Edwards earned national prominence during the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns in Iowa, coming in a close second in the first contest and earning a spot as John Kerry’s running mate.

If we only knew then what Young did then and reveals in the book, there would have been no then in Iowa for Edwards.

During the 2008 campaign, a reporter for The Washington Post visited Carroll and asked me what I thought of Edwards.

“He’s a clichéd character from a John Grisham novel,” I said. “And no one ever reads a John Grisham novel twice.” (Which was my way of predicting that he wouldn’t come out of Iowa a winner in the battle with then U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.)

According to Young, Edwards, who famously billed himself as a son of a millworker, was actually an elitist who wanted nothing to do with his past, save for the expedience of political backstory.

“I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?” Young reports Edwards saying in several variations.

Young said Edwards also clearly believed he was the only practical Democratic candidate in 2008 because he wasn’t black or female.

“A black or a woman can’t win the general election,” Young reports Edwards saying.

During that campaign, Edwards warned Iowa voters about what he perceived as the perils of nominating a candidate who down-ticket Democrats in some parts of the nation may decline to appear with in their own campaign events.

Speaking in Carroll, Edwards made the observation after saying there are “three of us who are most likely to be the Democratic nominee.”

“It’s not just a question of who you like,” Edwards said at an event I covered. “It’s not just a question of whose vision you are impressed with. It’s also a question of who is most likely to win the general election. It’s a pretty simple thing. Who will be a stronger candidate in the general election here in the State of Iowa? Who can go to other parts of the country when we have swing candidates running for the Congress and the Senate? Is the candidate going to have to say, ‘Don’t come here. Don’t come here and campaign with me. I can’t win if you campaign with me.’”

He added later, “I think it’s just a reality that I can campaign anyplace in America.”

In an interview I did with him after the event, Edwards strongly rejected the suggestion that his comments about being the most electable candidate in the Democratic field were a way of saying America won’t vote for a black man (Obama) or woman (Clinton) without actually saying it — to a largely white, elderly rural audience in Carroll with no national media present.

If Young is to be believed on this, we know what Edwards meant.

As a former congressional staffer myself I’m generally repulsed by insider “tell-alls.” Our leaders need to be able to trust staff members so open dialogue and debate can occur without them worrying every errant word or bad idea will be chronicled in an aide’s memoir. But Edwards so betrayed trust that Young essentially owed its publication to the nation. John Edwards put his party and nation at risk, a selfishness that demands a lifetime ban from the levers of power.

There’s just so much not to like about Edwards.

Here is what Young reports: Disgustingly, Edwards used the story of his teenage son Wade’s death in court cases and campaigns. John Edwards once wrecked a staff member’s car and just returned it to the person’s driveway without saying anything. He was late to events in Iowa because he was trying to manage his affair with Rielle Hunter via cellphone. And once she became pregnant, he persuaded a loyal staffer, Young, a husband and father, to falsely claim paternity in order to protect his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses — only after urging that an abortion resolve the embarrassment.

The Youngs helped squirrel away Hunter (funded by big donors) in Santa Barbara and North Carolina and elsewhere. She made the mistake of leaving a tape behind with the Youngs during a move.

“As soon as I pressed ‘play,’ we saw an image of a man — John Edwards — and a naked pregnant woman, photographed from the navel down, engaged in a sexual encounter,” Young writes.

As much as anything, Obama saved the Democratic Party from John Edwards.

For her part, Elizabeth Edwards, generally a celebrated figure for her role in the campaigns and losing battle with cancer, sent some awfully horrible emails and made some terrible phone calls, aiming her anger with Edwards at staff members and others. The Young book reveals her as pathologically ambitious and cruel.

“We thought you should know that this is not Andrew’s first woman,” Elizabeth Edwards says, cackling, to Young’s wife, Cheri, on one saved voice message.

There are more such documented anecdotes in the 368-page New York Times best-seller.

“As a youth John Edwards had been the ‘golden boy’ in his family and in his town,” Young writes. “Sometimes, I wondered if he had been loved too much back then and somehow got the idea that the rules might not apply to him the way they did to everyone else.”

In the end, the book confirmed my instincts about the Edwards campaign being a masquerade ball.

Young is a solid writer with paced prose, making “The Politician” immensely readable.

And it should be read as a cautionary tale for what happens with our cult-of-personality politics. We would do better to search for what we believe about policies and priorities and scrub this dangerous expectation, this child-like embrace of politician-as-savior from our elections.