John and Elizabeth Edwards have officially separated—days before the release of a new tell-all that slams them for their behavior. Eric Dezenhall says the politician’s worst blunder was assuming reporters would never turn on him. A close second: thinking the public has the I.Q. of a tangerine.
In Andrew Young’s new book, The Politician—scheduled for accelerated release this Saturday—about his former boss, Senator John Edwards, there is a fleeting anecdote that serves as a metaphor for the larger Edwards saga:
Edwards, who wore expensive Italian suits, had panicked prior to a debate in front of an American union group. The label inside his jacket read “Made in Italy.” Sensing he might be about to step in a political cow pie if one of the unionists inquired, he asked Young about the label inside his own suit jacket. Young’s read “Made in the USA.” Edwards ordered Young to immediately take both jackets to a tailor and switch the labels. Later Edwards played back a videotape of the debate and complained to Young about how his suit appeared to be wrinkled where the labels had undergone the old switcheroo.
Elizabeth Edwards turns out to be more Hillary Clinton than Hillary Clinton ever really was.
With ABC News now reporting that the Edwardses are legally separating, the denouement of this drama will trigger a landmark case study in the annals of political crisis management. Edwards’ implosion will be studied with a breathless sense of awe for generations because of the senator and his wife’s messianic belief in the power of their fraudulence—the sheer size of the canyon that separated who they are from what they are.
If there is one central takeaway from the new books and news reports about the Edwardses, it is that they were the opposite of who they said they were, and their careers were campaigns devoted to proving these falsehoods were real. The Edwardses did not employ subterfuge as much as they were constructed from it, utterly confident in their unique abilities to fool all of the people all of the time.
Senator Edwards attempted to symbolize a cure for the disparate “Two Americas,” but the Edwardses were the living embodiment of the Two Americas, preaching empathy for the little guy while living in baronial splendor in a 30,000 square foot mansion, jonesing on corporate jets, playing around with designer labels, and treating aides like serfs.
• Secrets from the Edwards Tell-AllThen there was Edwards’ Sixteen Candles character arc—the cinematic stud who can get any girl, but who goes for the plain girl nonetheless, and remains faithful to her. Edwards was prone to waxing on about his love for his seemingly homespun wife, even gaudily renewing his wedding vows in 2007 despite videographer Rielle Hunter’s entrance into his life. Fresh-faced family man Edwards, it turns out, had developed the habit of disappearing from his house in the middle of the night and leaving his hotel room in the wee hours of the morning to go on mysterious “jogs.”
Elizabeth Edwards, understandably granted a sizable armor of moral authority because of her battle with breast cancer, turns out to be more Hillary Clinton than Hillary Clinton ever really was, knowing full-well about her husband’s dalliances and encouraging his 2008 presidential run nonetheless, confident that legerdemain would win out in the end.
Whereas Bill Clinton avoided the trap of the bald-faced lie during his 1992 presidential run with a broad-brush acknowledgement of having “caused pain” in his marriage when the “bimbo eruptions” detonated, Edwards categorically denied affair rumors to a curiously uncurious news media, which didn’t press it. Later, during an interview with ABC’s Bob Woodruff, Edwards brazenly lied about being the father of Rielle’s baby Quinn, satisfied that the byzantine cover-up he had set into motion would win the trick.
This cover-up was a masterpiece of chutzpah requiring Young, Edwards’ aide, to cop to fathering Quinn and requiring some campaign high jinx (currently under investigation), involving billionaire Bunny Mellon and trial lawyer Fred Baron, both who were hornswoggled as to Quinn’s true paternity. Imagine the kind of worldview Edwards must have had to ask an aide—a youthful, married father of three no less—to take the fall for impregnating the senator’s own mistress.
Two Americas? You betcha.
Contrary to the cliché about it being “the cover-up that gets you,” cover-ups have been known to work, in full or in part; we just don’t know about them (which is why they’re cover-ups). The effective ones, however, don’t count upon the prestige media to be your handmaidens. If there was one damage control blunder that stands atop of the pyramid of Edwards’ blunders, it was his assumption as a veteran media darling that reporters would never turn on him. A close second was Edwards’ belief that the general public has the I.Q. of a tangerine.
Spin is a leaky vessel; it either floats or it doesn’t, and when it does, it usually happens out on the margins. At the core of most successful presidential players is something very real, a powerful symbolism, even if you don’t agree with it ideologically. Ronald Reagan stood for an ardently resurgent America after the ordeals of Vietnam, Watergate, hostages in Iran and economic malaise. Barack Obama stands for the opaque euphoria associated with “change” and the hunger for recovery after financial collapse and inexplicable wars, not to mention an undercurrent of atonement for our national birth defect, racism.
John and Elizabeth Edwards stood for everything they were not: Ordinary in both good and bad fortune, uncommonly solid, empathetic, humble, transparently what-you-see-is-what-you-get. In recent days they have attempted to inoculate themselves against the damage done by portraits of them by sources both intimate and collateral. Allies of Elizabeth Edwards have come forward to acknowledge her Lady Macbeth tendencies while her husband has turned up in Haiti to help with earthquake relief efforts.
Can a woman be both Lady Macbeth and “Saint Elizabeth?” Can a man be both freakishly obsessed with his own cosmetics and the struggles of the unfortunate? Of course, but after years of playing three-card monte with the Edwardses, is anybody listening?
Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.