CHAPEL HILL - I'm disappointed in John Edwards. The former presidential hopeful's admission that he did in fact have an extramarital affair with his one time campaign videographer Rielle Hunter was not surprising to anyone who's been following the story. Nor was his fessing up to having repeatedly lied to the public in his attempts to cover up the affair, or conceding the National Enquirer was accurate to report he had recently met with Hunter in a Beverly Hills hotel.
I feel badly for his wife Elizabeth and the rest of the Edwards family. The public exposure of what should have remained a private matter is an unfortunate situation all around. But what dismays me the most about this episode is the astoundingly bad judgement it reveals about the man. He was risking his own political career, and potentially the Democratic party's chances of winning the presidency if he had been nominated, all for some cheap thrills in the sack.
Before entering politics, Edwards didn't even vote regularly in national elections until the 1990s, so perhaps he missed what happened to Gary Hart in 1987. The then-frontrunner for the Democratic nomination thought he was invincible enough to cheat on his wife without anyone finding out. When it hit the press, Hart's White House bid was over.
Flash forward twenty years to April of 2007. Several months before questions began swirling about Edwards' relationship with Hunter, he came under fire for his $400 haircuts. And many progressives, myself included, rushed to his defense. Edwards had a lot of admirers on the left during his second run for the presidency. Many thought he was an effective advocate for working people who have been left behind by the growing income inequality in America.
People wanted to believe that John Edwards was sincere when he talked about his dedication to ending poverty and fighting for average folks. He positioned himself as the most liberal of the major Democratic contenders in 2008, far to the left of the centrist persona he displayed while running for president in 2004.
As a result, Edwards got a pass from the left on a lot of things, from his early cheerleading for the war in Iraq to his weak support of gay rights. And when rumors of his affair with Hunter first surfaced last fall, progressives circled the wagons. When the Enquirer reported on July 22 that Edwards had visited Hunter and their supposed "love child" in the Beverly Hills Hilton, the same thing happened. Last week, a HuffPo blogger who wrote about the Edwards scandal was banned from DailyKos, one of the biggest progressive sites on the internet.
I volunteered for John Edwards' presidential campaign in early 2004 at his national headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. There I met Andrew Young, the former Edwards campaign aide and married father of three who helped cover up the candidate's indiscretion. Last December, Young claimed he had the affair with Hunter and was the father of her child.
In 2004, Young was serving as director of operations for the Edwards campaign. To me he seemed like an aging frat boy, a fairly common type on political campaign staffs. What I didn't know at the time was that Young had started out a staffer, but become a close Edwards pal. If anyone was going to take the fall for John Edwards in an embarrassing situation like this, it would be Andrew Young. There was a high turnover among Edwards' campaign workers and consultants. But Young was part of the inner circle, on board since Edwards was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998.
The moment reports stated Rielle Hunter had moved down the street from the Youngs into a tony, gated community just outside of Chapel Hill called Governor's Club, it was obvious something shady was going on. If Edwards thought the best response to rumors of an affair was to whisk his former girlfriend down to North Carolina and hide her away from the national media's prying eyes, he was clearly delusional. And by engineering a clumsy coverup that implicated Young, his trusted campaign aide, Edwards created even more questions for inquiring minds.
But he got lucky. It was the week before Christmas when the Enquirer broke the news that Rielle Hunter was pregnant, and in its most sensational charge, alleged she was carrying Edwards' baby. The same media blackout on display for the past two weeks held firm then. Mainstream media organizations refused to report on the story, although Edwards was one of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination and had led Iowa caucus polls for much of 2007.
Edwards' withdrawal from the presidential race in late January after losing the South Carolina primary made it even more likely that the press would forget the whole thing. Yet the National Enquirer stayed on the beat. As interest in Barack Obama's vice presidential shortlist heated up, they decided revisiting the Edwards "love child" story might help sell some late summer papers and stave off the Enquirer's impending bankruptcy.
Sadly, I'm disappointed but not surprised by this turn of events for John Edwards. In the statement he issued August 8 about his affair, Edwards said, "I made a serious error in judgement." But throughout his short political life, he's shown similarly poor judgement on many occasions. Like voting for the war in Iraq and swallowing the Bush Administration's fairy tale about WMD's hook, line and sinker. Or giving up his U.S. Senate seat after only one term to seek the presidency in 2004.
In the months leading up to the 2008 primaries, his defenders consistently slammed the press for covering the gaffes known as Edwards' "three H's" - his newly constructed 28,000 square foot house, $400 haircuts, and large salary earned from a hedge fund for the super rich. Edwards raised the charge himself, accusing the media of playing a game called "Let's distract from people who don't have health care coverage."
There were plenty of right-wing Edwards haters out there who gladly used the media spin machine to magnify any bad news about him. Still, most of Edwards' problems during the 2008 campaign were self-inflicted.
Like it or not, if you're running for president, your every move is under press scrutiny. Too bad Edwards didn't realize this in time. Of course, part of Edwards' statement helps explain his foolish behavior, regarding the affair as well as his other political missteps. "In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic."
In retrospect, Edwards' entire political career was a flash in the pan, a triumph of hype over substance, and a big let-down for any progressives who were fooled into thinking Edwards was a working class champion capable of leading the Democratic Party to victory in a presidential race. Instead, John Edwards' turn on the national stage will forever be remembered as ending in a tawdry tabloid mess, a cautionary tale of squandered potential.
Erik Ose is a veteran of Democratic campaigns in North Carolina and blogs at The Latest Outrage.