The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

As Pretty Does

Edwards 3

I confess. John Edwards was, for me, very hard to resist. The man had qualities, personal and political, that I found hard to resist. That he was willing to talk openly about poverty and inject the subject into our political discourse was admirable in and of itself. It has been absent from the political scene for as long as Edwards has been.

And, in the case of the former, we are poorer for it. The ranks of the poor have grown from 12.5% of the population in 2007 to 13.2% in 2008. Since April 2007, when Edwards declared “We’ve got 37 million people who wake up every day in poverty. This is not OK, not in the richest country on the planet,” the number has increased to 39.8 million. But almost no one is saying “This is not OK.”

Yes, he had a good rap. Plus, the man was pretty. The hair, the smile, the eyes, etc. Toss in the accent and Edward’s brand of earnestness, and he was a fine example of the kind of southern boy I use to fall hard for, and still could.

But in his case, I didn’t. As we say in the South — and as people probably say everywhere — “Pretty is as pretty does.”

Like anyone who’s wary of entering into a relationship after having recovered from a bad one — especially with someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to “the ex,” I haven’t allowed myself a full-on political crush in years. And I didn’t with Edwards. I couldn’t. He reminded me too much of an “old boyfriend,” in the political sense, who wooed me with a smooth southern drawl, only to send me crashing back down to earth. Hard.

It was 1994, and I’d just moved to D.C. Bill Clinton, my last political crush, was in the White House, and I had worked to help put him there, as a college student. At the time, I was still glad I did. (And I suppose I still am, but only because the other candidates would have been much worse.) It was before he signed DOMA. It was before Lewinsky. It was before “triangulation.” So, I still believed in the man.

Then I had my eyes opened, much like people are having their eyes opened about John Edwards.

Mr. Edwards, the one-term senator who came close to being elected vice president in 2004 and ran a credible campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, remains largely secluded at his 100-acre estate here.

But a federal grand jury in nearby Raleigh is investigating whether any crimes were committed in connection with campaign laws in an effort to conceal his extramarital affair with a woman named Rielle Hunter. At the same time, Mr. Edwards is moving toward an abrupt reversal in his public posture; associates said in interviews that he is considering declaring that he is the father of Ms. Hunter’s 19-month-old daughter, something that he once flatly asserted in a television interview was not possible.

…The notion that Mr. Edwards is the father has been reinforced by the account of Andrew Young, once a close aide to Mr. Edwards, who had initially asserted that he was the father of Ms. Hunter’s child.

Mr. Young, who has since renounced that statement, has told publishers in a book proposal that Mr. Edwards knew all along that he was the child’s father. He said Mr. Edwards pleaded with him to accept responsibility falsely, saying that would reduce the story to one of an aide’s infidelity.

In the proposal, which The New York Times examined, Mr. Young says that he assisted the affair by setting up private meetings between Mr. Edwards and Ms. Hunter. He wrote that Mr. Edwards once calmed an anxious Ms. Hunter by promising her that after his wife died, he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band.

Once your eyes are opened, you want to close them again. The closer you look, the worse it gets. You want to avert your eyes, as the NY Times article says people did with John and Elizabeth Edwards dined out at a Chapel Hill, NC, restaurant. You want to look away, because — as we also say in the south — “That just ain’t right.”

To have an affair is bad enough, as a betrayal of one’s spouse and family. To jeopardize any number of political futures, and play games with the hopes of so many more people by pushing forward with a campaign — knowing the bomb in your closet could go off at any moment (say, after the nomination, sometime around mid October) — is another. But planning a wedding with your mistress, once your wife dies of the inoperable cancer that (by the way) she’s still living with, to the point of talking locations and picking out a wedding band?

To continue the metaphor above, it’s like finding out that the guy you flirted with but never dated turned out to be as much of a shitheel as the “ex” he reminded you of (Bill, you’ll recall, allegedly promised Monica he’d divorce Hillary and marry her once he was out of the White House), and thinking, “Whew! Dodged a bullet on that one.”

Politically speaking, that — to borrow another southernism — “takes the cake.” It rightly earns Edwards the title of S.0.B., and those initials don’t stand for “Sweet Old Boy.” That’s reserved for those who earn the title but at least remain likable. Edwards no longer qualifies as a likable S.O.B.

Pretty much by definition, a man who can be described as a cad is not a wholly admirable human being. There are, however, cads whose behavior shows a certain panache, an undeniable flair, a sense of humor and a genuine, if deeply flawed, humanity. Former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, I would argue, is one of these “lovable rogue” cads.

John Edwards is not. His caddishness, it appears, has no redeeming social or political value. He’s just a bad cad.

…In the course of what Young describes as an elaborate subterfuge to conceal Edwards’s paternity, two of the former senator’s wealthy campaign donors were tapped for funds that went to Hunter as what would appear to be hush money. Edwards is being investigated by federal prosecutors for possible campaign-finance violations, though I think it will be hard for the law to lay a glove on him.

But looking forward, with his mistress, to the day when Elizabeth would die? Planning a post-funeral wedding? Choosing the rock band? Even if all this was just a fairy tale meant to reassure Hunter and keep her quiet, I can’t have any “like” for John Edwards anymore. The forgivable kind of cad could never do such a thing. Only the worst kind would.

As Eugene Robinson writes in the Washington Post article above, there’s pathological quality to Edwards’ behavior that even the former senator himself recognized when he attributed to “a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences.”

As far as the diagnosis goes, he’s not far off the money.

Narcissistic personality disorder symptoms may include:

  • Believing that you’re better than others
  • Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness
  • Exaggerating your achievements or talents
  • Expecting constant praise and admiration
  • Believing that you’re special
  • Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings
  • Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans
  • Taking advantage of others
  • Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior
  • Being jealous of others
  • Believing that others are jealous of you
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships
  • Setting unrealistic goals
  • Being easily hurt and rejected
  • Having a fragile self-esteem
  • Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional

Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence or strong self-esteem, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence and self-esteem into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal. In contrast, people who have healthy confidence and self-esteem don’t value themselves more than they value others.

I can’t help wondering if there aren’t some anti-social traits in the mix as well.

Look, I know that politics is a magnet for people with varying degrees of narcissism. I know women (and men) sometimes throw themselves at political candidates and elected officials. (Unsurprisingly, it’s reported that women hurled themselves at Obama left and right during the campaign. Fortunately, he was smart enough to dodge them, otherwise it would certainly have been reported.) Political spouses come to expect some of that. But at the end of the day, however many times the opportunity to “get a little on the side” is flung in your face — with your commitment to your spouse and family on the line, not to mention the hopes and energy of countless supporters — you’re supposed to put your “big boy britches on” (or keep them on) and deal with it.

When he came forward about his affair, Edwards told Nightline’s Bob Woodruff that he wanted America to “see who I really am.”

Frankly, I’ve seen enough. Sure, like I said, the man nice to look at. Not to compare the two, but so was Ted Bundy. Sometimes a pretty package, unwrapped, reveals a big mess. Pretty on the outside doesn’t mean pretty on the inside.

Pretty, in the end, is as pretty does.

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