Lessons Learned From John Edwards

I was so very wrong about the shamed politician.

I never see famous people. Wait. I’m lying. I saw JP II when he was here in 1979. I was 11, and my grandmother took me to his mass on the Parkway. He got near us, and church-lady Beatlemania broke out all around me. Then, when I was a teenager, my mother made me get Frankie Avalon’s autograph at the Italian Market Festival. He was really excited. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had no idea who he was, so I hugged him and said I was a big fan. There was also Alice Cooper in the Cleveland Marriott. He was serenely eating an omelet and reading the paper, not in full make-up.

That was it, my trifecta of celebrity sightings, until the 2004 presidential campaign.

The two Johns, Kerry and Edwards, were making a stop right up our street. It just seemed lazy not to walk a block and see in person who could potentially become the next President and Vice President of the United States. Depending on how history was about to play out, maybe it would be a big-deal thing to tell our grandchildren one day.

Now indicted on federal felony charges, facing 30 years in prison, and having brewed a shit storm that makes Bill Clinton tugging on Monica Lewinsky’s stressed-out thong in the White House look like amateur hour, this is probably not even close to how John Edwards saw his history playing out. Some of the talking-head commentary during his trial has been about Edwards’ prowess as a trial attorney. Even as the defense was resting last Wednesday, without calling him, his poor daughter, or the baby’s mama with the shabby dye-job to the stand, someone remarked that he was “the most brilliant lawyer in that courtroom.” Really? I’ve taught middle-schoolers who told more sophisticated cover stories than his.

The first time I could vote for a president was in 1988, so by 2004 the thrill of feeling like a grown-up contributing member of a democracy was gone. But four years of living under a Bush was making me itchy, and life in post 9/11 America boiled down to a game of Jenga. Who was competent enough to pull out the next piece while we all stood around holding our breath? Not W. Not anyone.

By 2004, my cynicism and mistrust for all things political was deep. But it wasn’t politics that sold me on Kerry/Edwards. It was Edwards. Walking home from that rally with our two young kids, I told my then-husband that anyone who loses a child—as John and Elizabeth Edwards had when their 16-year-old son Wade was killed in a car accident on his way home from the beach—would be filled with a correct perspective about life and truth, even if he’d only partially risen from that bottomless pit of grief and despair. This seems like the kind of genuine humanity that could correctly orient almost anyone, maybe even a politician.

I was wrong.

In fact, John Edwards was disoriented and delusional to the point of persisting with a presidential campaign, even though he was having an affair, which plenty of people knew about, that resulted in a child, whom he initially tried to deny, all while his wife was deteriorating from cancer. He’s a terminal narcissist, and he threw his own family—alive, dying, and dead—under his grotesque ego. He thought he was something, but he was just another cliche, shacking up in an expensive hotel with a skanky opportunist, and he got caught.

They always do.

It’s not because I’m a fool that John Edwards duped me; it’s because I’m a wife and mother who finds sacrificing my family for my own gain incomprehensible. I’ll have no big-deal thing to tell my grandchildren about fame and fortune, except that Alice Cooper looks better without eyeliner. They won’t know who he is, though they’ll probably still be fist-pumping, “School’s out for sum-ah” every June. The only big deal thing I have to offer is that they should always tell the truth because it will eventually tell itself anyway, and worse than doing something bad is lying about it to save your own sorry ass.