Thursday, September 24, 2009

How John Edwards Betrayed Me

The first vote I ever cast was for John Edwards.

The year was 2004, and the occasion was the New York Democratic presidential primary. By that time the early string of caucuses and primaries had whittled down the once diverse Democratic field to only two men - Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina (lesser candidates like Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton were hardly taken seriously by then). New York was slated to be one of a series of states in the impending "Super Tuesday" primaries, and the consensus view (accurate as it later turned out) was that if Kerry won enough delegates in those contests, he lwould ock up the nomination that very night. If Democrats had any strong opposition to making John Kerry their nominee, or genuinely wanted to select John Edwards in his stead, this would be the last chance they'd have to forestall the inevitable.

My own voting decision had been made months earlier. Way back in the beginning - before the primaries even began, when Governor Howard Dean of Vermont was the odds-on favorite and Democrats were focusing on attacking Bush's foreign policies for their election efforts - I had seen a lot of potential in Edwards' candidacy. Although my strong support for re-empowering labor unions and providing universal health insurance had initially caused me to support Dick Gephardt, the feebleness of his candidacy soon made me to shift to his obvious ideological heir, Senator John Edwards. In him I saw not only the progressive economic policies needed to improve the quality of life for America's most disadvantaged, but also the kind of populist rhetoric that had historically proven most effective in electing liberal presidents. So committed was I that I even wound up "playing" Edwards in a mock presidential debate held by Bard's chapter of the College Democrats (the DVD to that affair is still floating around somewhere).

Summing up my reasoning for supporting Edwards in an article for my regular column with Bard's main newspaper, "The Observer", I wrote:

Throughout his campaign, Senator Edwards has made a point of focusing on the economic issues that matter most to people who have been hit hardest by the Buch economy - issues such as jobs, education, and health care. Other candidates such as Kerry do talk about these issues, but they avoid making them the centerpieces of their campaigns... Edwards, more than any other Democratic candidate, can best strike Bush in the Midwest and Upper South on the economic issues where he is most vulnerable...

I also had the following observation about the agenda he hoped to enact if elected:

(Edwards has) a very progressive and innovative approach to American domestic policy. This includes... a tax credit to prevent companies from exporting American jobs overseas, an education policy that guarantees the first year of college tuition to be free for all future students (which would be compensated by each student having to perform 10 hours of weekly community service), a series of health care policies that would enforce a Patients' Bill of Rights and place greater restrictions on insurance companies and HMOs, and complete rollbacks on Bush's entire disastrous set of environmental policies...

My mind cannot escape thinking about how fortunate my parents, their friends, and other baby boomers with whom I am close are able to fondly reminisce about having cast their very first votes for candidates like Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Shirley Chisholm, and George McGovern. Although none of those candidates ever made it to the White House, the young men and women who associate their campaigns with their first foray into the world of American politics can at least feel pride in the ideologies for which they stood and the characters of the men and women they chose to support... or, if nothing else, they can look back at the last forty years and proclaim (as do all good left-wing alter kockers) "Imagine how much better off America would be today if everyone had voted like I did."

I will never be able to say that. Although I still strongly agree with the political ideals Edwards so eloquently espoused back in 2004, I can't honestly argue that our nation would be that much better off had he been elected. Would we have superior economic and social policies than we did under four more years of George W. Bush? Absolutely. But would its political culture be in a positive place, free of the scandal and political dishonesty that had plagued it for the past forty years under Richard Nixon (Watergate), Gerald Ford (Nixon pardon), Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush (Iran-Contra), Bill Clinton (Lewinsky impeachment), and George W. Bush (lying about our reason for invading Iraq, the political persecution of CIA agent Valerie Plame)? Not even the most ardent Edwards die-hards can convincingly argue that anymore.

Apart from the caddiness Edwards has displayed (more on that in a moment), there are other unsettling aspects of his character that have emerged since the election. Take this disturbing anecdote from when John Kerry was interviewing prospective running mates shortly after having sewn up the last necessary delegates:

Kerry talked with several potential picks, including Gephardt and Edwards. He was comfortable after his conversations with Gephardt, but even queasier about Edwards after they met. Edwards had told Kerry he was going to share a story with him that he'd never told anyone else—that after his son Wade had been killed, he climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, laid there and hugged his body, and promised that he'd do all he could to make life better for people, to live up to Wade's ideals of service. Kerry was stunned, not moved, because, as he told me later, Edwards had recounted the same exact story to him, almost in the exact same words, a year or two before—and with the same preface, that he'd never shared the memory with anyone else. Kerry said he found it chilling, and he decided he couldn't pick Edwards unless he met with him again.

Note that that story comes from May 2007, more than a year BEFORE the sex scandal broke. Whatever the biases of its author, clearly it was not retroactively tainted with a predisposition to view Edwards as shady (at least not as a result of his subsequent infamy). The events that transpired since are now common knowledge, with the backdrop being set as Edwards announced his presidential candidacy for 2008 despite his wife's recent diagnosis with bone marrow cancer:
- The long string of National Enquirer stories alleging an ongoing affair between Edwards and videographer/socialite Rielle Hunter, one that eventually produced an illegitimate lovechild;
- The dismissal of those reports by both Edwards and Democratic party professionals as being mere "tabloid gossip";
- The substantiation of those stories with photographs, prompting Edwards' forced admission of infidelity but continued denial of paternity;
- Edwards' subsequent blacklisting from the Democratic party and pointed exclusion from the list of speakers at the upcoming Democratic National Convention;
- His wife's book deal;
- The decision both of Hunter and former Edwards aide Andrew Young (whom Edwards had initially convinced to take the rap for being that child's father) to turn nose on him and declare that it is Edwards himself, and not Young, who is the biological father of Hunter's child.

In case one's opinion of Edwards couldn't fall any further, there is now a new revelation:

Edwards once told Hunter they would wed after Edwards' wife, who has cancer, died... that the ceremony would be held on a rooftop in New York and the Dave Matthews Bands would make an appearance.

My sentiments about this whole sordid mess are best summed up by the reliably insightful commentary of Eugene Robinson:

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.

Yet inspite of all this, I do not believe that these actions alone are unforgivable.
In part that is because the word "unforgivable" is applied too readily in contemporary life. Few misdeeds, however serious, are truly unworthy of being forgiven if the offered apology is sufficiently sincere (with "sufficiency", of course, being a unit of measurement determined based on the severity of the initial offense). With the arguable exception of jeopardizing the Democratic party's 2008 presidential chances by running in the first place (had he been nominated, a serious scandal would have no doubt erupted), the aforementioned Edwards misdeeds - deplorable though they may be - do not fall within the realm of what we, the American public, have the right to someday forgive in a hypothetical future wherein Edwards offers a believable apology for them. Terrible though they are, they primarily affect the candidate's wife, children (from Elizabeth and Rielle), former aides and campaign co-workers, and friends. One could make a convincing case that each of these issues is none of our business, and that indeed the public's prying eyes are exacerbating rather than alleviating the harm that Edwards' actions has caused on the innocent parties involved.

Yet there is one additional misdeed that John Edwards has committed which IS the public's concern. It involves the revelation of a flaw that cuts to the very core not only of John Edwards the man, but John Edwards the candidate; not only who he is, but what he truly believes; not only the personal life he lives, but the sincerity behind the causes he has championed. It compromises the very essence of what caused people to support him both in 2004 (as I did) and 2008 (which thankfully, as an Obama supporter, I did not). Sadly it has received very little media attention, which in light of its seriousness speaks rather ill of the priorities of contemporary journalists (this Washington Post piece was the sole mention of it that I have encountered outside of the blogosphere):

One week before confirming the affair, he (John Edwards) pulled the plug on College for Everyone, a program he started in 2005 at Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C., which paid the first-year college tuition of any graduate who stayed out of trouble and worked 10 hours per week, at a total cost of about $300,000 per year.

Edwards touted the program often on the campaign trail, calling it the first step toward a nationwide financial aid initiative. But Assistant Superintendent Patricia McNeill said many had been bracing for the program's end once Edwards dropped out of the presidential contest. "Our children today are very astute and they are cognizant of what goes on in the political world," she said.

Among those who were taken by surprise was Lavania Edwards (no relation), a pre-kindergarten teacher who is still looking for help to cover the college costs of her son Malik, who graduated from high school last week. "We were really planning on that helping," she said. "I was disappointed and I wondered what happened in that they couldn't continue with the program -- or why no one came out to us with a definite answer."

Edwards said he had to pull the plug because campaign supporters were less likely to give money to the program once he was out of the race. "But it served its purpose," he said. "A lot of kids benefited."

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, residents who had been foreclosed on after Hurricane Katrina by subprime lenders owned by Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that Edwards worked for and invested with, have not received the special assistance that Edwards promised after their troubles were
reported by The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal in 2007. Edwards, who launched his campaign in a Katrina-stricken section of New Orleans, had vowed in 2007 that he would raise $100,000 to set up a fund that, administered by the anti-poverty group ACORN, would see to it that the 32 affected homeowners would be made whole.

Among the homeowners were Ernest and Ollie Grant, whose storm-damaged house faced foreclosure by Fortress-owned Nationstar Mortgage, on an adjustable rate loan that shot to $1,200 per month. The Grants said that after months of waiting for ACORN to call them, they reached out on their own and found a helpful employee, "Miss Kristi," who got their monthly payment down to $649. But six months ago, Nationstar started sending letters saying the payment was going back up above $900. The Grants called ACORN back, but Miss Kristi was gone, and others there provided no help. With their home finally fixed up, they are again worried about losing it.

They bristle at Edwards's name. "I just thought he was trying to cover his tracks while he was a candidate. I even told my wife that if he didn't win, we would feel these repercussions just like we're doing," said Ernest Grant. "It was probably all for show in the end."

Another resident, Eva Comadore, said she never heard from anyone after the day a TV news crew came to ask her about the promise. Comadore had lost her home to foreclosure by Green Tree Servicing, another Fortress company, in May 2007. Since then, she has been paying $400 a month, two-thirds of her Social Security income, to rent a trailer owned by her sister. "All I know is they were supposed to make some kind of agreement to settle with us but they never did," she said. ACORN spokesman Scott Levenson said the group had trouble finding the 32 homeowners. He said the group received $50,000, not $100,000, and that it went to the group's general mortgage-counseling program in New Orleans.

Edwards said the $50,000 came from him. "I wanted to make a good faith effort," he said. "Obviously, a problem this deep and widespread would not be solved by an individual presidential candidate."

The true mark of an unforgivable deed is one so heinous that no apology, no matter how sincere, is capable of rectifying it. It is difficult to determine with any precision just when a given transgression has reached that point, but I strongly doubt that anyone could argue the aforementioned Edwards misdeeds don't constitute such an action. Other scandal-scarred pols may have had their images ruined by their sordid personal lives, but they had redeeming qualities in their political work to at least partially offset them: Jesse Jackson may have been guilty of vicious anti-Semitism, but his genuine commitment to uplifting African-Americans could never be questioned; Ted Kennedy may have been been responsible for the death of an innocent young woman, but certainly no one would have dared challenge his passion for health care reform; even Richard Nixon, though plunging our nation in the greatest political scandal of its history, was ultimately respected in his later years for his undeniable greatness as a statesman in the shaping and execution of foreign policy.
Yet John Edwards is now exposed not merely as a philanderer who cheats on his dying wife, abandons his newborn daughter, betrays his loyal supporters and selfishly compromises the Democratic party's chances for victory in 2008; he is also shown to be a man for whom the very premise of his candidacy, the thing that caused so many to invest their hopes in him in the first place, was a bald-faced lie. The principles for which Edwards stood remain as strong and vital today as ever, but his former supporters are now left with no choice but to believe that John Edwards the man never really stood for them. No apology can ever make up for his being a phony. It is the one misdeed of his which is truly unforgivable.

We have much work to do, because the truth is, we still live in a country where there are two different Americas - one, for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don't have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggles to make ends meet every single day. It doesn't have to be that way. We can build one America where we no longer have two health care systems: one for families who get the best health care money can buy, and then one for everybody else rationed out by insurance companies, drug companies, HMOs. Millions of Americans have no health coverage at all... We shouldn't have two public school systems in this country: one for the most affluent communities, and one for everybody else. None of us believe that the quality of a child's education should be controlled by where they live or the affluence of the community they live in... We shouldn't have two different economies in America: one for people who are set for life, they know their kids and their grand-kids are going to be just fine; and then one for most Americans, people who live paycheck to paycheck... We're going to raise the minimum wage, we're going to finish the job on welfare reform, and we're going to bring good-paying jobs to the places where we need them the most. And by doing all those things, we're going to say no forever to any American working full-time and living in poverty. Not in our America, not in our America, not in our America.
- John Edwards (July 28, 2004)

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