- 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.
Young gets to witness up close Elizabeth’s increasingly erratic and vindictive behaviour as her illness takes its toll. Far from asking her husband to scale back his political ambitions, she pushes him on, if anything even more determined than he is to ensure he comes out on top in 2008. But her political judgment is gone. The big favour she does ask of John is that he build her a dream mansion in Chapel Hill, complete with indoor swimming-pool and matching treehouses for the children, each measuring more than 1000 square feet. This is his ‘cancer gift’ to her, but when it gets built, not only is it a significant drain on the family finances (remember, the Edwardses are only rich, not really, really rich), it also does huge damage to his man-of-the-people credentials when aerial shots of the 100-acre estate appear on the internet.
Meanwhile, it seems that John’s cancer gift to himself was to take a mistress. Young would have us believe that this came as something of a shock to his loyal staff, who had often assumed that their boss was asexual. Again, Young might have been more assiduous in following up earlier clues: he admits that it was part of his job to gather up and dispose of the notes that eager young women would try to palm onto the senator during campaign visits, and that every now and again Edwards would grab one of these and slip it into his jacket pocket. Anyway, sometime early in 2006 Rielle Hunter appears as part of the entourage, ostensibly in the role of film-maker recording a video diary of Edwards’s campaigning trips. Soon she is accompanying him on overseas missions, hanging out in his hotel room, and eventually sleeping with him in the marital bed on the nights Elizabeth is away. Young’s time is increasingly taken up with ensuring that Hunter and Edwards can maintain contact without Elizabeth finding out. He isn’t happy about this (and his long-suffering wife, Cheri, who appears throughout the book as resolutely sceptical about her husband’s devotion to the Edwardses, is even less so) but he sees it as part of the job. After all, his personal mission statement to himself when he began working for Edwards was to ‘set a new standard for body men’, meeting all his boss’s personal needs, and asking no questions. What else was he supposed to do?
Hunter turns out to be a difficult woman to please. She pesters Young constantly, demanding to know why Edwards can’t spend more time with her, and complaining whenever she can’t get through to him on the phone. In an earlier incarnation, when she had been called Lisa Druck, Hunter had briefly dated Jay McInerney, and is reputed to have inspired the character of the horrible, cocaine-addled sex-fiend Alison Poole, who appears in several of McInerney’s novels. Towards the end of The Politician, when Young finds a videotape of Hunter and Edwards having sex and considers whether he can use it to gain some leverage over them, he wonders whether his story and theirs is in danger of turning into a John Grisham thriller, with all the potential for violence that involves. But really Hunter’s tale belongs to a darker, more Faulknerian strain of fiction. When she was a teenager, her father, James Druck, was implicated in a notorious scam that involved killing horses in order to claim on the insurance; he ended his daughter’s promising equestrian career by paying someone to electrocute her prize pony. After that, she seems to have had, as they say, issues.
The great unravelling begins on the night that Elizabeth Edwards first sets eyes on Rielle preening herself at a campaign event, and instantly guesses that this woman is sleeping with her husband. When she confronts John she manages to extract what might at best be called a part confession. Later, Young discovers ‘that the senator had told Elizabeth that although he had indulged in a “one-night” fling with Rielle, in recent weeks she had become my [i.e. Young’s] mistress!’ (Showing commendable restraint, this is the only exclamation mark that Young uses throughout his narrative – if nothing else, he is a man who knows how to punctuate.) Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth turns on Young, showering him with vicious emails and encouraging the rest of her husband’s staff to disown him. She also starts trawling obsessively through the videos that Hunter has made of her husband on the road, looking for clues. But if anything, Edwards’s outrageous slander serves to bring him and his body man closer together. Young takes it as a sign of how dependent his boss has become on him that he needs him to fulfil the role of fall guy. He is now the person standing between Edwards’s presidential ambitions and ruin. So when Rielle reveals she is pregnant, it is naturally Young to whom Edwards turns to make the necessary arrangements, including finding her somewhere to live away from journalistic prying eyes. This turns out to mean that Hunter has to move in with Young and his family, and all of them have to move out of his own home and into a series of luxurious safe houses paid for from somewhere in the dark recesses of the Edwards political operation. Throughout it all Young’s wife remains remarkably stoical, while never believing for a moment that it’ll do any good. She’s right, of course. Eventually that great investigative journal the National Enquirer gets photographic proof that the woman they believe to be John Edwards’s mistress is with child. Faced with this calamity, Edwards somehow persuades Young to put his name to the following press release:
As confirmed by Ms Hunter, Andrew Young is the father of her unborn child. Senator Edwards knew nothing about the relationship between these former co-workers, which began when they worked together in 2006. As a private citizen who no longer works for the campaign, Mr Young asks that the media respect his privacy while he works to make amends with his family.
The response of the Enquirer to this unambiguous statement of fact is the obvious one: yeah, right. They publish the john edwards love child scandal! story anyway, with the following disclaimer stuck on the end:
And in a bizarre twist, Young – a 41-year-old married man with young children – now claims he is the father of Rielle’s baby! But others are skeptical, wondering if Young’s paternity claim is a cover-up to protect Edwards.
How on earth did it come to this? Young was trying to keep his boss in the presidential race and incredibly, for a time, he succeeded. The Enquirer story ran in late December 2007, just days before the Iowa primary for the Democratic nomination. Though the online world exploded with speculation about what Edwards was up to, the mainstream media kept its distance from the story, nervous of getting sucked into such murky waters when the primary season was upon them. In Iowa, Edwards managed to come a creditable second to Obama, squeezing Hillary Clinton into third place. Unfortunately, he had gambled everything on winning Iowa, and once it was clear that this was now the Barack’n’Hillary show, he got crushed in New Hampshire. Still, he hung on in the race, hoping to parlay his small number of delegates into influence at the convention and possibly a big job afterwards. In late February, Hunter had her baby, but the press continued to keep its silence, and Edwards continued to campaign as the honest broker for an increasingly divided and fractious Democratic party. It was only in June, when the Enquirer snatched some photos of Edwards visiting Hunter and the baby at a hotel in Los Angeles that the truth started to come out. Edwards gave a disastrously misjudged ‘confessional’ interview to ABC, in which he admitted having made a ‘mistake’ but still professed undying devotion to Elizabeth (‘I’m in love with one woman. I’ve been in love with one woman for 31 years. She is the finest human being I have ever known,’ and so, nauseatingly, on). This time the response of almost everyone was: yeah, right (apart from Bill Clinton, who apparently rang Edwards up to ask him ‘How’d you get caught?’). In due course, the only woman John Edwards has ever been in love with formally separated from him when a paternity test confirmed he is the father of Hunter’s child, and is now suing him for divorce. He is also estranged from his one-time friend and employee Andrew Young.
Young’s motivations throughout this extraordinary tale are simultaneously transparent and deeply mysterious. He loves being around Edwards for the proximity it gives him to money, power and celebrity. He also seems to share his boss’s belief that he is destined for ever greater things. When family and friends press Young on why he is willing to give so much time and energy to serving this man, his answer from back in 2004 is the mantra: ‘Sixteen years in the White House!’ It’s a seductive idea: Edwards serves as Kerry’s VP, then gets the nomination as if by right, and takes his own turn at the top, with Young following in his wake. But it’s also pure fantasy, even before Edwards has started to stray. No American politician of any stripe has ever managed 16 years in the White House – it requires too many contingencies to fall into place. Why would John Edwards, his obvious gifts (folksy charm, lawyerly ruthlessness, full head of hair) notwithstanding, be the first? Nevertheless, after the defeat of Kerry/Edwards in 2004, Edwards convinces himself, and many of those around him, that he is the obvious choice for 2008, in what will be the most winnable election for a Democratic candidate for many years. He positions himself to the left of Hillary Clinton (disastrously, he more or less ignores the challenge posed by Obama) and works hard to win support among labour organisations and blue-collar Americans worried about their jobs and their health insurance (or lack of it). He is the man who is going to deliver not just the White House for the Democratic Party, but also the first serious legislative programme to tackle poverty and inequality in America for a generation. Whenever Young complains about the increasingly miserable and undignified demands that Edwards is placing on him as he pursues this dream, the standard response he gets is: ‘This is bigger than any of us.’
But there are other forces at work. Young hints at his own chequered past, in which alcohol often played a part. He hits a low when, after a fight with his wife, he gets arrested for drink-driving and loses his licence. Terrified of what this will mean when the Edwardses find out (apart from anything else, he knows he is much less useful if he can’t ferry them around), he is amazed and relieved by his employer’s deeply empathetic response: ‘We’ve all done something like this, Andrew. I have. I know you feel like the lowest person on earth right now, but I love you. You are like a brother to me.’ What this also means, however, is that Young is now deeply in his debt, and they both know it. But the real glue that keeps Young in place is the American healthcare system, a subject on which Edwards had made himself an expert and the reform of which formed the centrepiece of his bid for the presidency.
Two of Young’s three children experience serious medical problems in the first year of their lives that require expensive treatment. On the rare occasions Young considers breaking his ties with the Edwardses and starting afresh, the first thing that comes to mind is that they are not only paying his wages but his family’s health insurance as well. And it always gives him pause. This book is, among other things, a truly chilling portrayal of the way healthcare works in the US. The treatment the Youngs’ second child gets, even with insurance, is haphazard at best, with diagnostic failures and inadequate nursing. When they complain, someone from the hospital’s Risk Management Office is sent to calm them down. By the time their third child develops similar problems, they have learned enough about the importance of personal contacts to trade on the Edwards name to get the best treatment available. Meanwhile, when Rielle Hunter arrives at a hospital in California to give birth to John Edwards’s child, it turns out she has no insurance at all. Young has to front up $5000 on his own credit card just to get her admitted. Finally, always hovering somewhere in the background at the bleaker moments of the story, is Elizabeth Edwards’s state of health.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is the prospect of his wife dying that drives John Edwards to behave in the way he does. Sometimes, this is made explicit and Edwards exploits the fact of his wife’s disease to put off difficult decisions, as when Young pleads with him to tell her the truth about the paternity of Hunter’s baby, and he responds: ‘I can’t let her die knowing this.’ At other points, however, the unspoken thought arises that Edwards’s extraordinarily reckless behaviour only makes sense if he believes that becoming a widower will relieve him of its potentially most dangerous consequences (exposure and ruin). When he asks Young (who in comparison with Edwards is really, really poor) to lend money to Hunter, he reassures him that everything would be repaid ‘when a wealthy benefactor was recruited to cover these costs or when Mrs Edwards died’. But it is Young himself who finally says the unsayable, albeit only in the retrospective form of this memoir. Thinking through his options during the days between the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, he comes to this conclusion:
If [Edwards] got the nomination and Mrs Edwards survived, we would be hard-pressed to find a way out of our arrangement with Rielle before November. If he didn’t win the nomination but wanted to pursue either the vice-presidential slot or a place in some future Democratic administration, we’d be in the same predicament. Barring a sudden surge of honesty, the only way we were going to get out of our commitment would be if Mrs Edwards died. And we still loved her too much to hope for this terrible outcome.
By ‘we’, he means himself and Cheri. He does not try to speak for the senator.
It is hardly surprising that no one comes out of this book well. Elizabeth Edwards has survived but she is still sick and still very angry: she is threatening to sue Young, not for libel but for ‘alienation of affection’, on the grounds that his role in covering up her husband’s affair was in part responsible for the failure of their marriage. The enabler’s revenge has made her more determined than ever to be revenged on the enabler. One of her conditions for dropping this suit is that Young contribute $250,000 to the Wade Edwards Foundation; she still believes that Young’s crimes against her family include the theft of her deceased son’s baseball card collection. Meanwhile, John Edwards has become a figure of ridicule, and his political hopes are dead. Yet one of the things this book leaves you wondering about is the extent of Edwards’s qualities as a politician. Certainly he comes across as a narcissist, a hypocrite and someone capable of extraordinary insensitivity. His personal life isn’t fit for public consumption. (Whose is?) But one is also left with considerable admiration for his ability to hold together a presidential campaign in the face of the mounting chaos of his private affairs, and he often stays remarkably calm under pressure. At times his ability to compartmentalise seems to border on genius. He makes the phone call in which he persuades Young to claim paternity of Hunter’s child from Des Moines, where he is just a couple of hours away from taking part in a crucial debate against his Democratic rivals. As Young recalls: ‘The senator talked as if he had all the time in the world … His demeanour made me think that he possessed at least one presidential quality: the ability to stay calm in a crisis.’ Then, with only the fig leaf of Young’s risible statement to the press to provide cover, he presses on for another six months, persuading the world that he is a candidate to be taken seriously (Hillary and Obama remain in desperate competition for his endorsement, until he finally bestows it on Obama in May 2008). If Elizabeth Edwards should be blaming anyone for concealing the truth about her husband’s failings, it’s probably the mainstream media, which when presented with all the evidence they needed by the National Enquirer, decided to turn their noses up at it. Calling what Young did a cover-up is a bit much given that it was all so easy to see through, for anyone who chose to look.
The mismatch between the public poise and private chaos involved in running for high office, and the reluctance of the press to probe that gap, is also one of the themes of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Race of a Lifetime, which tells the story of the 2008 campaign from inside the camps of all the leading candidates. The Edwards fiasco gets a condensed treatment here, the main difference from Young’s account being that Heilemann and Halperin’s sources are other Edwards aides, who take the opportunity to dump all over Young. Young’s ‘devotion to his boss was comically servile’, they write. One of Edwards’s staffers liked to joke, ‘If John asked Andrew to wipe his ass, he would say, “What kind of toilet paper?”’ (Given Young’s almost medieval devotion to the role of body man, he might not regard this as so insulting.) The travails of the Edwardses appear here simply as an extreme version of what’s going on inside many of the other campaigns, with fears of bimbo eruptions, psychic trauma, financial ruin and family breakdown looming large for all of them. Or rather, for all of them bar one. Barack Obama emerges as different from the rest. He is portrayed as calm, faithful and emotionally secure. Obama, we are told, ‘rejected the notion that running for president was a task suited only to the borderline mentally ill’. Race of a Lifetime does everything it can to back up the double implication of this statement: first, by showing how Obama kept his head when all around him were losing theirs; and second, by showing his rivals losing theirs in ways you would not believe.
The book opens on the night that Hillary gets beaten into third place in Iowa. Having been reluctantly persuaded by her staff to commit huge amounts of time and resources to a contest she had her own doubts about winning, she explodes with rage and resentment when the results come in. Red-faced and barely coherent, she lashes out at those around her, and can barely bring herself to be civil to Obama when she calls to congratulate him. ‘Watching her bitter and befuddled reaction, her staggering lack of calm or command, one of her senior-most lieutenants thought for the first time, This woman shouldn’t be president.’ This is one of Heilemann and Halperin’s recurring motifs: the moment when loyal staffers are confronted with the apparent unsuitability of their candidates for the highest office. It happens with John McCain, when he explodes with rage at his wife or blusters incoherently at an economic briefing; with Edwards, of course, as he makes a fool of himself over Hunter; and above all, with Sarah Palin, who seems to leave her staff in a semi-permanent state of despair at her unpreparedness for it all. By contrast, Obama is presented as consistently confounding the expectations of his staff by being better than they dared hope. When a deeply anxious David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, is emailed a copy of Obama’s speech on race, designed to defuse the rapidly escalating row about the behaviour of his pastor, the Rev. Wright, he fires back a one-line response: ‘This is why you should be president.’ Another of his staffers, Anita Dunn, recalls thinking at the same time: ‘This is a guy I want in a foxhole with me.’
The one respect in which Obama comes across as comparable to his rivals is in his frustration with the mainstream media. He is not so much bothered by their coverage of his own campaign (how could he be, given how besotted with him most journalists were), as with their failure to expose what he knows about the bad behaviour going on elsewhere. Why didn’t they nail Hillary for her covert racism, and her husband for his deliberate misrepresentations of the Obama message? This is another of Heilemann and Halperin’s themes: all the candidates spend a considerable chunk of their time manipulating the media, and much of the rest of their time complaining about the media’s failure to see through the obvious obfuscations of their opponents. There is some deep cognitive dissonance going on here: the politicians are both terrified and contemptuous of the newspapers at the same time. So the Hillary camp consume countless hours in fretful anticipation of a New York Times exposé of her husband’s post-White House infidelities; but when it comes, it is such a damp squib that they brush it off with barely a second thought. The same happens to the McCain campaign, where staffers are endlessly worrying that the Times is going to destroy their candidate with tales of an inappropriate relationship during his time in the Senate, but end up closing down the story once it appears by the simple device of getting McCain to deny it. But none of this stops McCain and Clinton raging against the same newspaper for its failure to pursue all the murky links and dodgy deals that they feel certain loom large in Obama’s Chicago past. In fact, the exaggerated fear they all have of scandalous newspaper headlines is one of the things that helps to keep the press servile – no story ever quite matches the apocalyptic expectations that precede it, which makes any story that actually gets published much easier to discount because it failed to deliver the knock-out blow.
Heilemann and Halperin would like us to think that theirs is the story we weren’t allowed to see at the time it was happening, because the mainstream media wouldn’t have dared report it and the candidates wouldn’t have let them. The clear implication is that the American voting public can be left reassured by the choice they eventually made: apart from Obama, would you want any of these deeply damaged individuals to have wound up in the White House? But that wasn’t my response. As with Edwards, I was more impressed by the way these deeply damaged individuals managed to hold their campaigns together, and present a reasonable face to the public, despite all the madness going on behind the scenes. The fact that Hillary completely lost her cool after coming third to Obama in Iowa doesn’t mean she’s not qualified to be president; certainly it doesn’t outweigh the qualifications she showed by pulling herself together, getting back out there, and turning the tables on him in New Hampshire five days later. Resilience, competitiveness and sheer bloody-mindedness are political strengths, as much as coolness, detachment and personal equilibrium. And even those candidates whose private failings would give anyone pause at seeing their hand on the nuclear trigger still emerge as having a quality that always counts for something in politics: the ability to stick it out regardless.
The person who comes out worst in this sense, but also best, is Sarah Palin. Heilemann and Halperin are determined to portray her as terrifyingly out of her depth, and they make clear that much of the blame for this lies with John McCain, who chose her as his running mate only at the very last moment, having been dissuaded from going with his preference, Joe Lieberman. McCain had been attracted to Lieberman (Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, now sitting as an independent in the Senate, having been disowned by his party for his full-throated support of the Iraq war) because such an unlikely choice seemed to fit with his self-projection as a maverick. When it finally dawned on him that the Republican party wouldn’t stand for it, he decided to double-down on his maverick credentials by gambling on the woman from Alaska, who looked great on paper but about whom he knew next to nothing. This late switch left McCain’s staff less than a week to vet Palin and to prep her for the mind-blowing shift from Alaskan state politics to being one of the most famous people in the world. No one knew how she would cope. There is a great vignette in Race of a Lifetime of McCain waiting anxiously backstage, barely able to watch as Palin embarks on her first major speech to the Republican convention. ‘McCain went from pacing fretfully to murmuring, “She’s really good,” to enthusing, “She’s incredible,” to grabbing [one of his aides] and exulting, “Oh, my God, great job, she did a great job!”’ Indeed she did – if not the best speech of the entire campaign, it was certainly the funniest, and Obama never delivered a line as good as her ‘I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organiser, except that you have actual responsibilities.’
After that dazzling debut, however, things started to go very badly wrong. Palin became first distracted, then sullen, then completely withdrawn as the step-up to a national campaign started to overwhelm her. Though initially enthusiastic, she soon began to resent the endless tutoring sessions with McCain staffers who were desperately trying to plug the yawning gaps in her knowledge of world affairs. She missed her family, including her newborn son, Trig, and may have been suffering from post-natal depression (unless you believe the conspiracy theorists who still insist the baby is not hers but her daughter’s). By the time the McCain team took her into seclusion to prepare for her one and only vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden (a man she was unable to stop herself calling ‘Senator Obiden’), it was clear that she was sick, and they were terrified:
Never before had Palin’s team seen her so profoundly out of sorts for such a sustained period. She wasn’t eating (a few small bites of steak a day, no more). She wasn’t drinking (maybe half a can of Diet Dr Pepper, no water, ever). She wasn’t sleeping (not much more than a couple of hours a night, max). The index cards were piling up by the hundreds, but Palin wasn’t absorbing the material written on them. When her aides tried to quiz her, she would routinely shut down – chin on her chest, arms folded, eyes cast to the floor, speechless and motionless, lost in what those around her described as a kind of catatonic stupor.
This is clearly a person in the middle of a major depressive episode. It was around this time that Palin gave her notorious interview with Katie Couric, in which she did indeed appear catatonic, as we now know that she was. And yet, somehow, she kept going, and in the end she pulled through. She not only survived her debate with Biden (having solved the problem of her inability to remember his name by saying at the outset, ‘Hey, can I call you Joe?’), she battled him to a draw, and then went on to rally the Republican faithful in a series of barnstorming performances around the country. Clearly, in drawing back the curtain to reveal the psychological disorder behind the scenes, Heilemann and Halperin want us to recoil in horror, or at the very least to wince with pity. But I found myself struck with wonder at the inner resolve of someone who can have a nervous breakdown in the middle of a presidential campaign yet still emerge from it as a significant political figure, who barely 12 months later has a large part of the Republican party in her pocket. Truly, in this game, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Heilemann and Halperin’s treatment of Palin is in keeping with the rest of their breathless, careless, relentlessly overwritten book (they are the sort of writers who think that ‘admixture’ is just a fancier way of saying ‘mixture’). A low point comes when they describe the crash course Palin was given in the history of American foreign policy by a team of McCain foreign policy advisers. ‘They started with the Spanish Civil War, then moved on to World War One, World War Two, the Cold War, and what [they] liked to call the “three wars” of today – Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war on terror.’ When I first read this, I thought, wow!, the Republican worldview is even weirder than I’d imagined: it starts with Franco and then somehow works out from there. But then I realised they must mean the Spanish-American War (McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, the dawn of empire etc), a much more obvious place for such a potted history to start. I’m sure Heilemann and Halperin know the difference, and this was just a slip of the pen (though it adds to the impression that their book was not so much edited as trawled through by competing teams of lawyers and publicists). Still, in a passage sneering at the world-historical ignorance of Sarah Palin, it doesn’t look good.
Nor, with the passing of time, does their overselling of Obama look good. As many commentators have noted, this book is skewed by the fact that the people who worked with Obama do not have the same incentive to vent their frustrations as the employees of the other candidates, since he still has a great deal still to offer (power, influence, jobs). For everyone else, the book seems to have served as another form of enabler’s revenge, and the people doing the complaining are invariably the ones who spent much of the period in question covering for the bad behaviour that they complain about. Even so, Obama unquestionably comes across as the nicest, most reassuring boss, sensible, easy-going and relatively forgiving. The question is why this should matter. Race of a Lifetime spends almost none of its 400-plus pages reflecting on what any of these politicians might actually want to do as president, nor how they might accomplish it. The assumption is simply that they are all in it to win it, and in that context Obama is the one whose ambition has done the least to corrode his decency as a human being. But there are glimpses of another Obama here too: the one who, lest we forget, floundered in debate after debate with Hillary Clinton, her ‘mastery of the issues’ making him come across as ‘vague and weak and windy’. Obama’s confidence in the face of his inadequate grip on policy often looks a lot like arrogance, and his great gifts only really flower in situations when he can remove himself from the fray. It is no coincidence that the two most significant triumphs described in this book – Obama’s defusing of the Rev. Wright row with his elegant speech on race, and his calm handling of the post-Lehman crisis while McCain was flailing around like a lost child – occurred because he felt able to distance himself from events for which he did not feel personally responsible. Obama is good at taking a detached view of other people’s failings. It is not clear how good he is at taking a detached view of his own.
Obama unquestionably ran a better campaign than Hillary Clinton, but Race of a Lifetime did not change my view that she would have made a better president. Indeed, despite the fact that he was obviously unelectable, I’m not sure that Edwards wouldn’t have been an improvement on Obama in some respects. Edwards had come to know a lot about healthcare reform, and he had thought seriously about the practical issues involved. He was clear about what he wanted to achieve, and he had some sense of the enemies he would have to make in order to achieve it. Paul Krugman – admittedly no gospel, but someone with a serious interest in the policy options – preferred Edwards to Clinton, and Clinton to Obama, for this reason. Of course, if anyone had to say who is the better person, the order would need to be reversed. But why do we care about this so much? We spend too much time worrying about what politicians are like and how they behave, and not enough about what they might be able to achieve in the offices to which we elect them. Even Andrew Young, for all his naivety about and complicity in the miserable tale he has to tell, showed some sense of this.