A Reporter Reassesses His View of John Edwards

Last October I had a post which was critical of a favorable article Walter Shapiro had written on John Edwards. Considering all the emails I received from Edwards supporters for not accepting Shapiro’s mostly positive assessment, I do have some satisfaction in today’s article from Shapiro on Edwards. Shapiro now admits he was wrong in light of recent revelations about Edwards in an article entitled Johnny, I hardly knew ye: After covering John Edwards — and liking him — for years, what I thought I knew about him was wrong. But reporters often misjudge candidates. He writes:

Five days after Edwards flat-lined on “Nightline,” I am still embarrassed by how badly I misjudged him both in print and in my personal feelings.

Beginning with a trip to North Carolina in the spring of 2001 to scout this first-term Senate phenom, I chronicled his dogged pursuit of the presidency both as a newspaper columnist and for Salon, as well as making him (and Elizabeth) central figures in my book on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign. My wife (a magazine writer who developed her own friendship with Elizabeth) and I had several off-the-record dinners with the Edwardses, including an emotionally raw evening in Washington two weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

Without overstating these bonds, I naively believed that I knew Edwards as well as I understood anyone in the political center ring. Yet I never saw this sex scandal coming — partly because I accepted the mythology that surrounded the Edwardses’ marriage and partly because I assumed that any hint of a wandering eye would have come out during the 2004 campaign. But then Rielle Hunter and the National Enquirer brought us all into the real world.

I do not want to dwell long on the specifics of this modern-day no-love story. But even though some facts remain in dispute, at every moment when judgment was called for, Edwards made the wrong choice: 1) the entanglement itself; 2) putting Hunter on his political payroll; 3) believing that he could run for president without being exposed; 4) continuing his campaign after Elizabeth was diagnosed with terminal cancer; 5) lying to the press when the National Enquirer ran its initial story last fall; 6) being recently lured, by his own account, to a meeting with Hunter in her hotel room; and 7) attempting to salvage things by appearing on “Nightline” rather than issuing a truthful and rueful press release.

As a reporter covering my eighth presidential campaign, I am mostly interested in the journalistic lessons arising from my flawed character assessment of John Edwards. This was not a case of the Inside-the-Beltway Syndrome in which beloved Washington figures get every conceivable break from a sometimes gullible press corps. Edwards was always a bit of a political outsider (especially after he recast himself as the left-wing populist in the 2008 presidential field) and my affection for him was more idiosyncratic than reflective of press-bus groupthink.

If there is a moral here (other than the obvious truism about the danger of women who inspire Jay McInerney novels), it is about the need for humility when writing about a candidate’s marriage, his religious beliefs and other deeply personal matters. There are things that reporters and readers simply cannot know for certain without empowering journalistic gumshoes to do bed checks. My mistake about John Edwards was believing all his public boasts about his nearly perfect marriage. I allowed myself to judge him through the prism of his union with Elizabeth when I would have reached a far different conclusion if I had gazed through the lens of his dalliance with Rielle Hunter.

Of course Walter Shapiro was not alone in his faulty assessment of John Edwards. The problem with Edwards is not only that he managed to fool most people about his personal life, but that his public life was also a  fake. Edwards has turned out to be one of the most successful con man of all time to enter politics, based upon a single term in the Senate which he used purely as a stepping stone. He managed to make it as far as the number two spot on a major party presidential ticket despite a lack of qualifications, understanding of the issues, and integrity. Bob Shrum had it right in calling him a “lightweight,” a “hyper-ambitious phony” and “a Clinton who hadn’t read the books.”

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4 Comments

  1. 1
    Rose says:

    John Edwards talked about Dad’s mill,
    While sleeping with a chick off the pill,
    He lied and fibbed to the MS press,
    And, awoke early to preen and dress.

    His wife, Elizabeth, knew the lie in 2006,
    But supported John in Iowa while sick,
    They stole Hillary’s honest votes daily,
    And laughed on cue, and hiding Rielle.

    Why did John lie like a cheatin’ rat ?
    No “New Deal” for the average Democrat,
    While Obama and Hillary fought on the stump,
    John Edwards watched Rielle grow a bump.

    Now John’s love child is common news,
    And Fred Baron has money to lose,
    Rielle, now nursing, has jetted away,
    Even Geraldo has joined the fray!

    John’s affair has hurt his poor kids,
    More than Clinton’s cigars ever did,
    A sordid tale that some call a crock,
    The only winner, a loser named Barack!

    Like dogs in heat, Edwards did pant,
    Defined forever, just like Hugh Grant,
    Tabloids paid to get the sleeze,
    Is it John’s baby, mister please?

    While Elizabeth cries over her brood,
    Baby mama with John was not a prude,
    Gone the innocent days of Tom Sawyer,
    John gettin’ love like a real trial lawyer.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    The poetry’s not bad, but would have been much better if you could have resisted the bashing of Obama. Obama wasn’t even a winner from the situation, considering that he was the second choice of the majority of Edwards supporters. Without Edwards in the race Obama could have knocked Clinton out much earlier, getting an earlier start on the general election campaign.

  3. 3
    battlebob says:

    Ron,
    Agree on Edwards’ effect on the campaign.
    Without Edwards, Hillary would have been defeated much sooner.
    Edwards had a lot of flaws which is detractors saw.
    For instance, he agreed on the Iraq War vote because it was politically expediant. What a courageous stand that was! Nothing like condeming folks to death and draining the treasury for votes.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Edwards’ strategy was to take whatever positions he thought would help him at the time, just like a lawyer who could argue either side of a case before a jury depending upon who his client is.

    He was a conservative Democrat in 2004 and before when he thought that this was the best course to success. He then decided it would be best to run as a populist in 2008 and took the positions he thought would play the best among both Iowa voters and the net roots, which he thought he could use to fuel an insurgent campaign against Clinton.

    I’ve always been amazed that so many on the left bought his act. Fortunately many in Iowa saw that there was something wrong when he campaigned as a totally different person in 2008 as he was in 2004. He still might have gotten away with it if Obama hadn’t run an even better insurgent campaign against Clinton. Plus Obama had the advantage of having been against the war from the start.

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