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John and Elizabeth Edwards: Scenes from a marriage

Along with her husband, Elizabeth Edwards is portrayed in an unflattering light in the book 'Game Change.'

January 13, 2010|James Rainey

There still appears to be a sizable minority in America who favors big news organizations at least in part for their broad ambitions, thoroughness, balance and sense of restraint.

But ain't it a shame when those highfalutin', old-school intentions get in the way of the basic mission -- delivering the audience a "Hey Martha!" scoop now and then with their breakfast cereal?

It seems the higher values and a healthy dose of old-fashioned incredulity (Could he really be that big a cad?) put America's most prestigious news organizations on the sidelines as presidential hopeful John Edwards embarked on an extramarital affair of epic audacity.

After reading "Game Change," a sweeping new account of campaign 2008 by veteran journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, a reader might wonder: How could the schmucks on the bus miss the operatic disintegration of Edwards' once widely admired partnership with his wife, Elizabeth?

Since I was (very briefly) one of those paid observers on the Edwards campaign, I thought I would try to assess how we all missed this one, big time.

But first a bit about the book, whose revelations about Edwards have been excerpted extensively in New York magazine.

Under the headline "Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster," the writers depict a humble candidate transformed by fame into a narcissist who ignored fervent entreaties by his staff to turn away from a loopy, new-agey admirer named Rielle Hunter.

As the National Enquirer would reveal in October 2007 (a couple months before the Iowa caucuses), Edwards instead embraced Hunter as not only fan but as fly-along campaign videographer, chief sycophant and lover.

The most striking revelations in "Game Change" are not about Edwards but about his wife and longtime political collaborator, Elizabeth.

In counterpoint to the image well known to Americans of Elizabeth Edwards as a bright and charming political partner who fought valiantly against breast cancer, "Game Change" portrays her as a churlish and sometimes vindictive alternative.

This Elizabeth is a back-room player who browbeats campaign aides and treats her husband dismissively. (She scoffs, the authors recount, when someone suggests John Edwards actually read a book.)

The book paints a particularly hideous scene on the morning in the fall of 2008 after the Enquirer reported Edwards' affair -- the political couple's trip to the airport devolving into a screaming, sobbing confrontation. Elizabeth reportedly ripped off her blouse and exposed herself, shouting "Look at me!"

Many will argue these are prurient details, but they make for a fascinating counterpoint to the conventional portrait of the Edwardses. Knowing that her husband had cheated on her -- just months after her cancer returned and been deemed incurable -- why did she insist Edwards continue his push for the Oval Office?

Campaign staffers would wonder at the damage Edwards would have done to the Democratic Party if he had secured the Democratic nomination, only to have the adultery exposed belatedly, paving the way for a Republican to win the White House.

"The worst part of it is that they did it together," one former Edwards staffer told me this week. "She let the campaign go ahead, encouraged it. She really is a co-conspirator in the worst way."

Veteran North Carolina political columnist Rob Christensen -- who has had a friendly relationship with Elizabeth, covering the family for years for the Raleigh News & Observer -- said the damage of the continuing Edwards campaign could have gone beyond party.

"Just think if they had been successful," he said in an interview. "We could have had another Monica Lewinsky figure dominate another Democratic presidency."

The 448-page campaign book has gained more acclaim in recent days for exposing Sen. Harry Reid's way of talking about Barack Obama and race. In the long run, I think the book will be better remembered for exposing Sarah Palin's almost criminal ignorance about the world and the Edwards' mutual destruction society.

The full squalor and significance of the Edwards story has taken a long, long time to gain traction in the mainstream media. The Los Angeles Times ran a two-paragraph brief of Edwards' denial of the affair when the Enquirer broke the story in October 2007.

That's two graphs more than most papers ran. The conservative Washington Times ran the item alleging an affair at the end of a string of six briefs. When Ann Coulter tried to talk up the Edwards adultery on MSNBC, conservative host Tucker Carlson changed the subject.

A lot of the mainstream media's distaste for the story doubtless stems from their disdain for the Enquirer. Big papers like to recall when the tabloid got it wrong (for instance, buying the concocted suggestion that Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping might be related to a "gay-sex ring") instead of when it got it right (revealing that Hillary Clinton's brother got $400,000 for helping win a presidential pardon for a convicted businessman).

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