The Real Edwards Question

As Americans rinse off the stench of the long sad Edwards affair, we find ourselves wondering yet again: how did this happen?

Part of it is the same hubris and delusions of entitlement that ensnared Clinton, Gingrich, Spitzer, Schwarzenegger, Baker, Swaggart and others who have seen their private behavior torch their public image.

But the odor from this one has a particularly sulfurous tang -- carrying on an affair with a woman brought into the inner circle for ease of access, while a wife dying of cancer traveled in the same entourage. Add reports that that a man who was a supermarket tabloid away from being vice president of the United States made a sex tape -- potential evidence that exceeds the titillation factor of even Monica Lewinsky's stained dress.

Some politicians are brought down by the Washington Post. Others by The National Enquirer. Times change.

But what truly sets apart the Edwards saga from the others is the scale of the complicity.

How many office romances go unnoticed? Bonnie Raitt wrote in "Something to talk about": "We laugh just a little too loud. We stand just a little too close. We stare just a little too long."

Compound that by the close quarters of a campaign bus, and a baby with no father on the certificate, and I would defy anybody in the traveling show to say they were shocked.

Events would support reports that the strategy was to reveal the affair after the election and after -- this will follow Edwards forever -- his wife passed away.

Unimaginable hubris meets astonishing delusion meets toothless campaign laws; all converging at the intersection of questions that are yet to be answered -- and perhaps never will be.

Faithful to the sad, sordid script in a parade of political implosions, Rielle Hunter has a tell-all coming out at the end of the month: What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter and Me.

What Really Happened will almost certainly answer such pressing questions as how cute did they meet, how good was the sex, how bad was the guilt and -- of course -- the reliable book-mover and buzz-maker: the sex tape.

But there are other questions about what really happened.

How did a seasoned campaign staff think that they could pull this off? In what always-on media universe would it be possible to hide an affair with your spectacularly unqualified and inept videographer and your baby -- with The National Enquirer reporters prowling the campaign like coyotes circling a campground?

How can it be so easy to divert $1 million from wealthy donors to hide a mistress from your supporters and -- of course -- your dying wife?

How did a man so bereft of common sense and common decency make it to the Democratic ticket in 2004 and the short list of Obama's possible running mates in 2008?

How could someone be so corrosively self-involved that he would campaign for that spot knowing that under the thinnest of veneers lay ample evidence to reduce the whole campaign to smoking ruins?

It's very doubtful that John Edwards will address these questions as he pursues what he said in his post-verdict statement is "God's plan" for him. But somewhere in the muck of the answers is a cynical politician and flawed human, supported by a staff and structure that chose to see instead an electable asset with a bright smile and perfect hair.