It has been a source of deep despair to me, and surely countless others, that the John Edwards trial isn’t televised. It’s the ultimate soap opera: Sobbing on the witness stand! Betrayal! A sex tape! A defense attorney who admits outright that his client is scum!
The only thing it lacks is a cliffhanger; whether Edwards is guilty of misusing campaign funds is the least interesting thing about the show playing out in a Greensboro, N.C., federal court. The thrill is in the human drama, the cast of compromised characters, and the behavior unveiled at the far reaches of the political process. It’s a study in the massive ego required to run for president and the gravitational pull that ego can have, the way it can bend people into its weird, destructive orbit.
Presidential candidates are not all bad people, but they are all, by definition, egotistical people. John Edwards, apparently, had an even bigger ego than most; he was rich and powerful, and he also had that face, that hair, that desirability, as evidenced by Rielle Hunter, a new-age former party girl who aggressively flirted with him at a hotel bar. (Does this ever happen to Mitt Romney? Ron Paul?)
Like many men in his position, Edwards also had his sycophants, including a 101-year-old reclusive heiress named Bunny, who was so personally upset by press about the candidate’s $400 haircuts that she volunteered to pay for the trimmings herself. Later, she would waste her money in a more spectacular fashion, helping Edwards hide his affair with Hunter — and hide the child they had together.
But really, the money was nothing compared to the sacrifice made by the Youngs, Edwards’ once-loyal aide Andrew and his wife, Cherie. For more than a year, they sheltered Hunter from the press, first keeping her in their home — where she was apparently a less-than-gracious houseguest — then taking her on the run, staying in donors’ homes and luxury hotels.
Most stunningly, they agreed to pretend it was Andrew Young who had the affair, to throw off the scent of the press — because, as Edwards delicately told him, “They don’t give a [expletive] about you. They want me.’”
This declaration was part of what Young called his boss’s “stump speech,” an impassioned case for why an Edwards presidency was so critical to the future of humanity that Young, a father of three, should debase himself, and humiliate his wife, to make it happen.
“He talked about how this was bigger than all of us,” Young said on the witness stand. “He talked about poverty, about ending the war in Iraq.”
Cherie Young told jurors she got the same guilt trip: She was told that she and her husband had the most important job in the campaign, and that if she said “no” to the ruse, she would personally jeopardize not just one man’s ambitions, but America’s next best hope.
It’s fascinating, the way the Youngs were made to feel both trivial and crucial: mere satellites in Edwards’ orbit, yet able to reflect some of his light. Presidential candidates are prone to self-aggrandizing talk — i.e. I, Newt Gingrich, and only I, have the capacity to save us all from certain doom. But while some candidates might actually believe their own hype, it’s less clear what all those aides think: Whether they’re loyalists or mercenaries, how much unsavory behavior they’re willing to overlook in the name of winning.
It’s unclear how much the Youngs actually believed in their boss, and how much they simply believed in themselves. “Being friends with the most powerful person on Earth, there’s a lot of benefits that go along with that, for you and your family,” Andrew Young told the court. And the defense has eagerly pointed out that most of the $925,000 that was supposedly funneled toward the coverup was, in fact, used to finance the Youngs’ grotesque dream home.
Besides, Andrew Young wasn’t loyal forever: He eventually wrote a tell-all book about the affair, which has been optioned for an Aaron Sorkin movie. The drama is all there, and the mystery, too. Is self-importance always more powerful than self-respect?
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter