Politicians come and go, rise and fall. Few fall as quickly and with as little grace as John Edwards. Once a front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Edwards was undone by the news that while his wife of thirty years was battling cancer, he had been carrying on an affair and had even fathered a child with his lover. He rose far and fast and found that he could fall just as quickly. Voters are willing to put up with some scandals, but not this one. Edwards fell from grace and will never recover. His days as Presidential hopeful are long gone.
The story of Edwards’ meteoric rise and fall is told by Andrew Young in the book The Politician. Young first volunteered for Edwards in his 1998 campaign for the U.S. Senate. He remained in Edwards’ employ constantly after that point. He graduated from driving Edwards from event-to-event around his home state, to managing his schedule from his Senate office. Along the way he also became the guy who was tasked with cleaning up behind Edwards, hiding or erasing evidence of his boss’ indiscretions. He became like family, or perhaps like a domestic slave, seeing the Edwards’ at their best and their worst. Eventually this led him, at his boss’ bequest, to claim to be the father of Edwards’ unborn child.
“How, I asked, was I supposed to explain to my wife that I should confess an affair I never had, claim an unborn child that was not mine, and then bring her along with our family as we attempted to vanish into thin air?” Can you imagine having this conversation with your wife? And yet somehow Young did it and managed to convince his wife to play along; or, more likely, to convince her that at this point she had to play along. Thus began a bizarre couple of months of being on the run from the paparazzi, attempting to hide a truth that was only too apparent. Not surprisingly, no one was fooled.
Young’s account of his many years of unparalleled access to the Edwards family makes for fascinating reading that will serve to confirm the accounts of John and Elizabeth. Those who read it will be glad that Edwards never had the opportunity to become President. If his opinion of himself was so great as a “mere” Senator, we can only imagine what would have happened had he attained the highest office in the land. Presented as brilliant, astute and yet so self-absorbed that he was unable to see the cost of his poor decisions, Edwards is portrayed in a decidedly negative light. His wife Elizabeth suffers as well, shown to be angry, spiteful and power-hungry, willing to show public hypocrisy toward her husband in order to have the chance to become First Lady. Both accounts accord with what is widely known about the two.
What is more interesting, perhaps, is Young’s portrayal of himself. Having made a long series of monumentally bad decisions, and having spent years as little more than a gopher for his boss, constantly asked to do the most menial of tasks, Young is probably a little easier on himself than the outside observer would be. Though he does not refuse to put any blame on himself, neither does he really refuse to paint a picture of himself as the victim of a particularly charismatic and persuasive individual. In the end he borrows the pseudo-Christian spirituality of his father, the preacher Bob Young, and says that he should have just learned to love himself; this would have kept him from doing all he did. “If I had truly loved myself, I would have been ashamed of my own mistakes and lived in fear of being found out. If I had loved myself, I would not have felt the need to devote myself to a hero and his cause. If I had loved myself, I would have understood how much Cheri and the kids valued the time I spent with them and I would have said no to John and Elizabeth Edwards.” But I disagree with this fundamentally self-centered worldview. So does the Bible. What would have made the difference is if he would have loved himself less. Had he loved himself less and his wife and family more, he would have seen Edwards for who he was and would have walked away, to live life for and with his family. It was his own self-absorption that led to his enslavement to John Edwards. Only the blindest mind would refuse to see this in the pages of the book.
I find that the major lesson of The Politician has less to do with John Edwards and more to do with the author himself. What strikes me is how a man can hang his star on another person, trusting that the ascendancy of the other person will bring about his own ascendancy. This desire to become somebody on the coattails of someone else led Young to do things that cross from ill-advised to just plain dumb–epically dumb. Even when asked to do things that were immoral or illegal, Young was so bound to Edwards that to refuse his will would be to leave himself destitute and friendless. Of course eventually he ended up both destitute and friendless anyway. It was inevitable, really. The book of Proverbs seems to have all kind of wisdom that would have informed Young, if only he had taken its lessons to heart. These lessons are to be taught to young men. A guy of Young’s age should have known better.
Here we see a man who thought so highly of himself that he was willing to do anything, even at the expense of his own dignity and conscience, to satisfy the increasingly self-centered demands of another person. Yet it was in this other man that he hoped to find life. Edwards was an idol, not in the sense of someone he aspired to become, but someone in whom he sought to find life. And like any idol, Edwards proved cruel and remorseless and petty. He demanded much but offered only deferred and ultimately impossible joy. Young bound his life to this idol and suffered the inevitable consequences.
Verdict: Read it to see how the heart longs to find life in all the wrong places.