Enabler’s Revenge

David Runciman

  • The Politician: An Insider’s Account of John Edwards’s Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down by Andrew Young
    Thomas Dunne, 301 pp, $24.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 312 64065 1
  • Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
    Viking, 448 pp, £25.00, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 670 91802 7

Along with a good lawyer, an agent and a PR representative, celebrity miscreants now need an enabler: the person who indulged them in their vices and so can be blamed for failing to get them to stop. ‘Who enabled Tiger Woods?’ is one of those questions, like ‘Who lost China?’, that seems to demand an answer, when really it is just a way of avoiding the fact that Tiger Woods, like China, is responsible for his own misfortunes. Enablers to the rich and famous usually fall into the uncertain category that lies somewhere between employee and friend, which is what makes it so hard for them to call time on their boss/buddy’s misbehaviour. These are the people who go to the parties, make sure the girls and the drugs find their way to the right table, then help to clear up the mess in the morning. But enablers are also useful when the mess comes to light, because they can be cast as the villains of the piece, the ones who allowed the whole thing to spin out of control. How can anyone be expected to get a handle on his or her problems when surrounded by lickspittles like these? By dumping on the enabler, the celebrity can be recast in the more comfortable role of victim.

Enablers are less useful, however, when they decide to tell their side of the story – indeed, they become positively terrifying. These aren’t just the people who know where the bodies are buried. They’re the ones who drove you to the site, handed over the spade, and whistled to keep your spirits up while you were digging. Usually, that kind of complicity should be enough to guarantee silence. But it also means that once someone decides to spill the beans, it’s because they’ve decided there is nothing left to lose. This certainly appears to be the case with Andrew Young, whose stomach-churning, jaw-dropping account of his time spent working for, befriending and then covering up on behalf of the Democratic politician and presidential hopeful John Edwards takes the genre of enabler’s revenge to a whole new level. ‘Covering up’ doesn’t really do justice to Young’s role, which by the end included going on the run with Edwards’s mistress Rielle Hunter and their love-child (with Young’s own wife and three children in tow), having allowed Edwards to tell the press that he – Young – was the father of Hunter’s baby. How does anyone get into the position of accepting paternity of another man’s child in order to allow him to continue running for high office? Young sets out to explain, and it does not make for pretty reading.

Yet what is clear from the start is that this is a love story. The real romance is not the one between Edwards and the extremely peculiar Hunter, a self-described ‘truth seeker’ and ‘old soul’ who needs to call her psychic guru back in California before she can decide whether to have Russian dressing with her Reuben sandwich. The love is between Young and Edwards, even though from the start it is distressingly one-way. Young was, on his own account, a pretty easy catch. He first sees Edwards at a lawyer’s convention in Myrtle Beach, and is blown away by his fresh-faced looks, his ready charisma and his palpable sincerity. The deal is sealed when Young catches sight of Edwards opening the door of his beat-up Buick and picking up the old Diet Coke can that falls out to dispose of it in the trash. Not only is this a rich man who drives an ordinary car, but someone who deals with his own rubbish rather than leaving it for others to take care of! By the time Young discovers that Edwards has got BMWs and Lexus coupés stashed away at home, and that he brings out the Buick only when he needs to burnish his everyman image, it is too late – he has been sucked in.

The Edwards whom Young goes to work for was a relative newcomer to politics, having made his fortune as a trial lawyer specialising in medical malpractice suits. The event that changed Edwards’s life was the death of his teenage son, Wade, in a road accident in 1996. His response to this tragedy was to spend a chunk of his personal fortune getting himself elected to the US Senate for his home state of North Carolina, though not before he had enhanced that fortune by deploying the story of his son’s death during his closing remarks in a case against a swimming-pool company whose suction cleaner had disembowelled a young girl, helping him to secure a $25 million verdict for his clients. Young tells us that Edwards decided on a political career when he watched the movie The American President, which stars Michael Douglas as a widowed president who falls in love with a lobbyist. Apparently, the film helped Edwards to imagine ‘a life of purpose following a great personal loss’. (Incidentally, it also means that two of the three main Democrat contenders for the presidency in 2008 were partly the creation of Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of The American President and originator of The West Wing, which more or less mapped out Obama’s run for the presidency before it happened; in that sense, only Hillary Clinton was ‘real’.) The response of Edwards’s formidable wife, Elizabeth, to the loss of Wade was to abandon her own successful legal career in order to undergo fertility treatment at the age of 48, after which she gave birth to two more children. She also devoted herself to furthering her husband’s ambitions to move as quickly as he could from the Senate to the White House.

Bereavement is clearly the motor that drives this story: the Edwardses are two ambitious, restless people who, unhinged by grief, become in their different ways even more ambitious and even more restless. It also provides the book with some gruesomely comic moments. In 2004, Edwards put up a decent showing in the Democratic presidential primaries, which persuaded the successful candidate, John Kerry, to consider him as his vice-presidential running mate. The two men, who did not know each other well, arranged a meeting in Washington to see how they might get along. The meeting was not a success. Edwards, in order to establish some intimacy, told Kerry he wanted to share a story with him that no one else knew. He then proceeded to tell him that, when he was brought to identify his son’s body, he climbed on the mortuary slab in order to embrace him one last time. Kerry was stunned, not so much by the inappropriateness of the tale, but by the fact that Edwards had told him the same story on one of the few occasions they had met before. Edwards’s own response to this encounter, which also saw Elizabeth get together with Teresa Heinz Kerry for the first time, was to tell Young that both Kerrys were ‘complete assholes’. Part of the problem was that they had too much money for Edwards’s liking: ‘Andrew, I’m rich, but they are ludicrously rich. How can he possibly be the leader of the Democratic Party?’ Edwards, whose political career was built on his supposed empathy with the common man, turns out to be obsessed with the distinction between two classes in American society: the people who are what he calls ‘rich like me’ and the people whom he refers to as ‘really, really rich’ (as far as one can tell, it’s the difference between having a net worth in eight figures, and one in nine or ten). Despite all this, Kerry picked Edwards, and despite the spectacular lack of personal chemistry between them, the two men held it together long enough to come tantalisingly close to victory. Unsurprisingly, both Edwardses blamed both Kerrys for the ultimate failure to unseat Bush. They thought Kerry ran a lacklustre campaign, that Teresa was a drag from the start, and that only jealousy could explain the reluctance to give John, with all his natural charms, a more prominent role. Next time, the Edwardses were determined that they would be in charge.

Everything changes for John and Elizabeth Edwards on the night in November 2004 when they realise that the American people (or rather a couple of hundred thousand of them in Ohio) have granted Bush/ Cheney four more years. However, it is not the little death of electoral defeat that marks the shift. It is instead thoughts of another death, this time of a death foretold. Elizabeth discovers she has cancer, and the prognosis is not good. By this point Young is working for the family in North Carolina as a kind of glorified bagman, running errands, raising political funds, organising the daily schedule (Edwards has quit the Senate, so has no political staff in Washington to arrange how he spends his time). Young is the person Elizabeth calls when she needs someone to summon plumbers in a domestic emergency, or drive former staffers to retraining programmes, or get hold of a special birthday gift for one of her kids. This last task produces one of the major fallings-out of Young’s period in her service, when his own assistant invokes the Edwards name to jump the queue at Wal-Mart in an attempt to get hold of a Sony PlayStation 3. This does not look good when Wal-Mart publicises it the next day, since John Edwards was the leader of a campaign protesting against Wal-Mart’s failure to offer healthcare coverage to its workers and its refusal to allow them to unionise. The press and late-night talk shows have a field day. So does Elizabeth Edwards, who sends Young a series of increasingly abusive emails. One of these ends: ‘This is what can happen when we ask for special treatment. We cannot ask for special treatment. Ever.’ If this is the Edwards family motto, it should perhaps come with the rider that what they do instead is wait for special treatment to be offered without their having to ask for it.

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