The convention went on without him. Had he dared to appear, no doubt there were burly operatives assigned to evict him physically before the news cameras could find him. The Democratic Party, the U.S. Senate, the state of North Carolina, America, the legal profession, everything that ever provided him with an identity is going on without him.
The name John Edwards, bold-lettered on millions of campaign posters moldering in landfills, is never spoken now by a registered Democrat, and rarely printed outside the supermarket tabloids that brought him down. As Wall Street crumbles, no one will ask him what he would do to save free-fall America from ruin. From serious contender to untouchable pariah in the space of a few flashbulbs, John Edwards fell further, faster than any hero since Icarus. Greek tragedy is what he's living. He confesses to "narcissism." But that's just couples-therapy jargon for "hubris," the fatal flaw of unbridled, incautious ambition that destroyed the protagonists of Aeschylus and Euripides.
The tragic fall of John Edwards was greeted with sneers by most of his hard-hearted countrymen, who don't see him as a bloodied Bronze Age prince or a defeated statesman in a tear-stained toga. Little dignity survives the ignominious theater of his disgrace: the bottom-feeding National Enquirer, a tabloid that lives off the sex lives of nasty rockers and vapid starlets no one over 20 could identify, and pictures of the innocent-but-doomed little cherubs their rabid couplings produce. (At least it's a nonpartisan scandal sheet—in this week's Enquirer Sarah Palin is accused of sleeping with her husband's partner, and her son Track is portrayed as a drugged-out delinquent who barely stayed out of jail. Her pregnant daughter Bristol, says the NE, has been a dope-smoking slut since puberty.)
On these pages George Washington or the Duke of Wellington would have been reduced to squalor. For a man who was nearly elected vice president, who has heard adoring crowds hail him as "President Edwards," what humiliation worse than hearing his sex life discussed in public by his mistress's confidante, a woman who calls herself "Pigeon"? How would we remember John Kennedy now, if his many infidelities had been examined on celebrity Web sites by inside sources known as "Snuggles" and "Bitsy"?
But the Greeks gauged your tragic stature by the height you reached and the distance you fell, not by the quality of the chorus that sings your swan song. Edwards rose from the blue-collar Bible Belt to make a huge fortune as a plaintiff's attorney. He was elected to the U.S. Senate, ran twice for president, won primaries in industrial states far from Dixie, and made his party's national ticket in 2004 as John Kerry's running mate, which means he came as close as Ohio's disputed, perhaps stolen electoral votes to becoming vice president of the United States.
In a Barack Obama administration, he would have been a leading candidate for Attorney General. For many true believers, who found the Clintons calculating and Obama over-cautious, Edwards articulated the most convincing vision of an America where ordinary taxpayers might liberate themselves from the iron yoke of the plutocracy and its lackeys in Washington.
His was no run-of-the-mill résumé, no quotidian destiny. And the depths where he finds himself are as extreme as the heights he approached. A public life that was meant to be lived with honor and distinction—I still believe that most politicians, especially populists, begin with the best intentions—could hardly end more pitifully than his, with a front-page headline in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post: "He's A Lyin' Cheatin' No-Good Hypocrite" (sic). Newsweek magazine publishes a "Dignity Index" that claims to measure "just how low a person can go." In the history of the index, says Newsweek, John Edwards is the first celebrity to score a perfect 100 for indignity. Imagine the competition.
But the scorn of the media, even in America, isn't the measure of tragic misery. At 55, Edwards' public career is over, and all his virtues obliterated. He lost a 16-year-old son in an automobile accident. His loyal and gifted wife, Elizabeth, his closest adviser, may soon be dying of cancer. After admitting to campaign-trail adultery with a certified wild woman, who now has a baby the dirt-diggers insist is his own, he must doubt that his three other children will ever forgive him, far less treat him with respect. Even more sordid was evidence of an elaborate cover-up, which included apparent payoffs to the mistress and a married Edwards loyalist who claimed that he fathered the child.
It takes chronic hubris, bad judgment and bad luck to bring a Big Man down. The pregnancy was a swinging strike three, an epic stroke of misfortune unprecedented in my professional experience of political philanderers. Yet Edwards' unoriginal sin was extramarital fornication. In North Carolina I know people who say it was typical of him, others who insist emphatically that it was not. Either way, it was predictable that sharp-tongued women of the press would subject him to unrelenting abuse. Men, for the most part, kept their mouths shut.
We all know there are certain women who regard a faithful husband as a personal challenge to their charm. Some use sex strategically, with predetermined goals; some just don't take sex all that seriously. A funeral director from Muncie, Ind., or a pharmacist from Amarillo, Texas, might meet one of these liberated women once in his life, or never. Lower-profile, lower-income road warriors like reporters and salesmen would come across one occasionally, though we were rarely her primary targets.
Politicians, athletes and entertainers, travelers with name recognition and disposable glamour, meet a great many of these cocktail-dress adventuresses—and no doubt resist most of them. By all accounts Rielle Hunter, née Lisa Druck, is a classic example of the Big Game hunter, the celebrity-level Other Woman. Whether Edwards was a wide-eyed innocent or an experienced adulterer, it seems unlikely that he was the predator in this fateful affair. The irony, of course, is that it only matters in America. The day the bad news about Senator Johnny began to make the rounds, we were eating lunch with a Chilean businessman, husband of an old friend of my wife's. "In Chile, anywhere in Europe or Latin America, no one would have known about this," he said. "And if they knew, no one would care."
"What's the big deal?" asked the Chilean, in the presence of his wife. But Edwards was no Candide. He knew what we all know about America's double standard. Our private morals might make rabbits blush, but the standards we impose on public servants have changed very little since the Mayflower dropped anchor. Nowhere else in the world is there such a hypocritical discrepancy between private and public morality. Edwards knew the risk and took it. That's where hubris comes in, as a sense of entitlement and immunity that comes with uncommon success.
I admit to a certain sympathy for this ruined man, this outcast. I don't make political contributions, but I wouldn't be surprised if my wife, who knows Edwards' wife and is not bound by my scruples, has sent a check or two in their direction. I liked many of the things Edwards was saying during the primaries; some of them have even more bite now that corporate avarice and irresponsibility have brought the American economy to its knees.
I met him a couple of times. He had the nerve, rare among North Carolina politicians with more than local ambitions, to show up at holiday parties for the staff of the notorious Independent Weekly, once denounced by a Republican as "Left-wing attack media from hell." Last spring I sat next to him at a small fund-raising luncheon and confess that I was unnerved by his boyish appearance—he could pass for 35 in the right light—and surreptitiously inspected his profile for signs of the plastic surgeon's hand, or the hair-restorer's.
His looks, of course, were no small part of the great good fortune that ended so abruptly. I always thought it was unfair when smart-alecks like Maureen Dowd called him "the Ken Doll" or, meaner yet, "the Breck Girl." Edwards can't help being handsome, in that menswear-catalog way that irritates the homely, any more than Obama can help being biracial, or John McCain old and bald and ominously goofy, like your nice Uncle Ted who's so avuncular until he has a couple of drinks and starts yelling "bitch" at Aunt Beverly.
Incidentally, the only thing I said that caught Edwards' attention was a remark to a woman across the table; I told her I'd never vote for anyone over 60 for president. "Why is that?" he turned and asked me. "Because I am over 60," I replied, and I meant it and still mean it, and any honest person over 60 knows exactly why.
You may intuit that I'd prefer Edwards, Rielle, Pigeon, Snuggles and a whole harem of fortune-hunting party girls at the White House, rather than surrender it to the cranky old flyboy with the long-suffering rich wife who looks as if he wore her out 20 years ago. I'm not attempting a defense of Edwards' character. But remember that the presidency is not an appealing job; thanks to George W., it may now be a hopeless one. People who want to be president, including even Barack Obama, are not like you and me. When you think of your life, and whether it was satisfying or successful, do you ever think in terms of history? I'm sure I don't. But Nixon did, the sub-mediocre Bushes did, the Clintons do. No matter how badly you botch it, the presidency guarantees you a piece of history, and the people who covet it are a little off center, a little deformed in a way that isn't always attractive. To aim so high you have to see yourself in a certain light, a flattering radiance that often precludes perspective and humility.
It may be that Edwards is one of the worst of these people. It's hard to forget that he recruited a scapegoat to take the fall for his girlfriend's pregnancy, or the astonishing statement in his confession on ABC-TV—perhaps he was distraught to the point of incoherence—that he only slept with Rielle while his wife was in remission from her cancer.
But in the context of North Carolina's recent senators, you understand that many of us bitterly regret Edwards' demise. Our arcane politics haven't produced a lot of national figures who swell our breasts with pride. In 2008 we bid a tearless farewell to our perpetual senator Jesse Helms, last of a terrible tribe of racialist demagogues who manipulated bigotry to their political advantage, an incorrigible fool who served as Washington agent and virtual ambassador for Latin American death squads and for the apartheid government of South Africa.
Right-wing eulogists actually tried to whitewash the old cayman, exhuming the vintage campaign slogan "You always know where he stands." (Just to the right of the devil.) It's true that most politicians are chameleons—nominee McCain is a one-man rainbow—but North Carolina might have been better served by a chameleon than a Gila monster. Helms, presumably a lifelong Christian, must be staging the filibuster of his career to keep St. Peter from sending him where the sun never shines.
Jesse's senate seat is now occupied, allegedly, by Elizabeth Dole, wife of the second oldest Republican to run for president. Out of 100 senators, Dole is regularly ranked in the low-to-mid-90s in effectiveness, with no one much below her who isn't senile, under indictment or Larry Craig. Though she's as well-preserved as John Edwards (in dim light she looks 27), as a senator she's been nothing but an automatic rubber stamp for the serial blunders of the most hopeless president ever inaugurated.
Surprised by a C-SPAN interviewer's question, I once violated my own high standard of Southern chivalry by naming Sen. Dole the South's most useless politician. We Tar Heels have known even worse, though. At the height of his power, Jesse Helms handpicked a right-wing ideologue named John East, an obscure professor previously toxic only to college students, and managed to get him elected junior senator from North Carolina.
Compared with these pre-Silurian specimens, Edwards was like William Pitt or Benjamin Disraeli, a fireball of intellect and charisma. Bill Clinton, who had a lot more of both, went a long way without much character either. And he never paid the high price Edwards is paying and will keep paying, with interest. In retrospect, certain snapshots from the marriage of John and Elizabeth Edwards are almost unbearable to view—like the photo in People magazine of them renewing their vows on their 30th anniversary (2007, post-Rielle), surrounded by their solemn children, with Elizabeth holding a bridal bouquet.
Filtered through a distorting lens of popular culture and tabloid voyeurism, even Greek tragedy can be hard to separate from bathos. Instead of Aeschylus, we have Matt Drudge and Maureen Dowd to interpret our fallen heroes. But pain, loss, and the cruel laughter of the Fates have never changed.
The Edwards family gave us the only tragic figures to emerge from this long year of presidential fever. There was plenty of comedy, some of it even intentional, like the monologues of the fundamentalist stand-up Mike Huckabee, who now has his own talk show on Fox. You couldn't make these things up.
Europeans see the American political system as incomprehensible, when it isn't actively side-splitting. In parliamentary democracies that actually focus on the parties and their policies, they can't understand how the Republicans, after a catastrophic eight-year buildup to the Market Crash of '08, would even dare to field a presidential candidate, far less expect to win. They think McCain should have Ralph Nader or Pat Paulsen numbers in the polls. "Europeans can be surprised by the fact that a Republican is elected at all," speculates an editorial in Dagens Nyheter of Stockholm. "The personal-centered election plays a role."
It does indeed. Earnest magpies of the mass media grade John McCain on his debate-night gravitas, noting every tic and bob and grimace like judges on American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. His chronically atrocious judgment, flagrant as a red-wine stain on his TV shirt or his fly unzipped on-camera, is politely overlooked, with a courtesy commonly accorded older gentlemen like the senator and myself.
Yet it declares itself with every choice he's made, every aide he chooses, every suit that trails him off the airplane. He commands a squadron of lobbyists connected to the gambling industry, others compromised by the bankrupt mortgage holders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. McCain's choice for chief financial adviser and potential treasury secretary was Phil Gramm, the old boll weevil, onetime chairman of the Senate Banking Committee whose anti-regulatory efforts for mega-bank patrons led us, as much as any one man's blindness, into the quicksand where we're all drowning today. Only Gramm's appalling "Let them eat cake" moment, dismissing hard-pressed Americans as "a nation of whiners," removed him from his trusted place at the candidate's side. On the other side sits McCain's foreign policy adviser, that old war criminal Henry Kissinger, still alive, still unindicted, still unashamed.
This might be hilarious if it hadn't been encouraged by poll numbers, if you lived in Sweden, if this were a happier moment. And just when you thought nothing could top Gramm and Kissinger, along came Sarah Palin. She was God's great gift to Jon Stewart and David Letterman, an easy target, as wide and slow-moving as those poor Alaskan moose she boasts of killing and field-dressing. (We Unitarian children were taught how to field-dress a creationist.) But it's poor sport making fun of her, and class and gender are only part of that problem. She is what she is, she didn't ask for this, for the Saturday Night Live and National Enquirer treatments, for Dowd mocking her as "a Lancome rep who thinks The Flintstones was based on a true story."
It's McCain's fault entirely. His choice of Sarah Palin was cynical, reckless and grossly irresponsible, and everyone knows it, including McCain. It shows how much he loves to gamble. It shows also that McCain, like most of these egocentric history-chasers, will still do anything at all to win his personal page in the chronicles. Even at his age, he hasn't outgrown that itch. But anyone who thinks Palin's is a hand capable of steering the Ship of State through these unprecedented perils is smoking something so strong that even Track Palin might let it pass.
Rush Limbaugh loves her. But it's notable that even some right-wing columnists—even one right-wing woman, the usually unreadable Kathleen Parker—are asking Palin to step down for the good of the country. McCain's path as a candidate has been so erratic it's hard to isolate cynicism from senescence. He's a long way past 60, and it's very ominous that he still uses the word "victory" when he speaks of the war in Iraq. The word, along with the notion of a military victory, was explicitly and officially retired by Gen. David Petraeus when he left Iraq in September.
There may be only three people left in America who still speak of "victory" in Iraq: John McCain, President Bush and the grotesque oil-war cheerleader Charles Krauthammer, who recently wrote a column admiring the president's preternatural, imperial calm while Rome burned around him. (Krauthammer, a physician, should know that imperturbable calm is one of the symptoms of a head injury.)
The wingless old pilot who's lost his bearings, the baffled young moose-slayer who thinks she sees Russians across the Bering Strait. They make quite a pair. Some of us laughed, even while it seemed possible that America is stupid (and prejudiced) enough to elect them. Now the laughter's freezing in our throats. Events of the past few days, even since I began to write this, have altered every equation. As the Jericho that was Wall Street comes tumbling down, as millions of us lose fortunes large and small and the actual future of the Republic seems to hang in the balance, the election that seemed so critical before The Crash has changed its color. Suddenly it's harder to concentrate on social justice, and calculating the effect of the meltdown on the Electoral College seems cold-blooded and cynical.
Standing tall on shifting sand is Barack Obama, a candidate neither comic, nor tragic, nor out of control. Obama will be not be destroyed if he loses this election. In fact he's young enough to become the leader of the humbled, scaled-down, colorblind America that might still rise from the wreckage of this ghastly decade. And suddenly the presidency, now, might not be his best career move. How would you, how would Roosevelt or Churchill or Frederick the Great, how would Jesus Christ deal simultaneously with Iraq/ Afghanistan, unimaginable, irrecoverable deficits and an economy in cardiac arrest? Welcome to the White House. What a ghastly irony if America's potential savior becomes its sacrificial lamb. God help Barack Obama if he wins the election. God help us all if he loses.