Since John Edwards admitted to an extramarital affair, the aftermarket media buzz has been rife with the requisite exclamations of "what was he thinking" and "men are idiots when it comes to sex." This logic assumes that because the affair was sexual, the primary catalyst for Edwards' relationship with Rielle Hunter was, in fact, sex.
Having spent 25 years in the peculiar trade of crisis management, and having seen up close the cause-and-effect wreckage of companies and careers, I have a different theory about what caused Edwards' crash.
Anyone who follows politics -- and who is being honest -- wanted to see a photo of Rielle Hunter the moment it appeared that the rumors of the Edwards' affair might be true. There is something instinctive, however shallow, about wanting to see the person someone prominent threw their life away for. The subtext, of course, is whether the person was "worth it" based upon the optics.
I quickly found a handful of photos of Hunter in emerging news stories. In a few drive-by shots, she appeared haggard. In others she looked like an attractive but-not-gorgeous woman in her forties. What hit me, though, was how in most of the photos I saw of Hunter, she was holding a video camera.
Lots of women Edwards encountered could provide sex, but Hunter, a self-styled videographer, came equipped with both sex and face time. For an admitted narcissist with a messianic sense of destiny, Edwards was toast. In one of Hunter's "interviews," Edwards explained that he wanted people to know that he wasn't a "plastic Ken doll that you put in front of the audience," adding, "I actually want the country to see who I am -- who I truly am."
His seduction should surprise no one; he's just the highest-profile recent casualty of our geometrically-expanding media culture, the engine of which is self-merchandizing.
Many PR crises, primarily the ones that involve individuals, are either caused or exacerbated by the primal hunger for maximum individual exposure. Whereas the American Dream was once about prosperity, it is now about publicity. I call it "Carmen Electrism" in honor of Marshall McLuhan's heir, the contemporary scholar, Carmen Electra, who said, "Life is not worth living unless there's a camera around."
It is virtually impossible to walk past a newsstand without a celebrity imploring you to learn something intimate about them as evidenced by the current Vanity Fair where French First Lady Carla Bruni tells us from the cover, "It's not that I had a lot of lovers, it's that I never hide them," and last week's Parade magazine cover featuring actresses Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Eva Mendes beside the headline, "We're not the women you think." As if we've been thinking a lot about them (which maybe we have been).
Carmen Electrism even renders grief a backhanded opportunity for self-promotion and revelation. After Princess Diana died, Madonna engaged in a breast-beating wail about how she felt upon hearing the news. A parasitic subspecies often identified as "Kennedy Family Friends" tends to creep into the media bloodstream whenever America's first political family suffers a tragedy. When her brother was killed in a plane crash, Caroline Kennedy, who inherited her mother's sense of discretion, refreshingly severed ties with self-styled KFFs who exploited the awful news to dive before TV cameras to grab their slice of Camelot ("The last time John and I had dinner...")
The Internet is replete with destinations like Facebook, which are devoted to intimate self-revelation, a training ground perhaps for The View or Larry King Live. A 20-year old Rhode Island man, who nearly killed a woman in a drunken driving accident, found himself in court awaiting sentencing as the judge scrolled through Facebook. In the photos, the young convict stood beaming in an orange mock-prison jumpsuit emblazoned with the word "Jailbird." Heh. The judge was not amused, declared Party Boy "depraved," and gave him the maximum sentence.
The fastest-growing trend in TV features a never-ending parade of ordinary people seeking transcendence via exposure even if it means injuring themselves physically or otherwise ruining their lives. A recent "contestant" on a show called "Moment of Truth" -- where participants are asked questions about their sexual histories while hooked up to a polygraph machine - destroyed her marriage when she disclosed how she had been spending her days while her husband, a cop no less, was walking the beat.
There are times, of course, when self-revelation serves a strategic purpose. The key word here is strategic. The main criteria for success in this enterprise are, first, being good at it, and, second, context, which usually comes in the form of an emotionally resonant narrative.
John Edwards was a product of filmed self-revelation. Much of his political equity was tied to his optical narrative -- a rich, movie-star handsome senator who went against type by marrying and remaining devoted to a decent, intelligent -- but unglamorous -- woman with whom he shared both triumphs and personal tragedies. Think Jerry Maguire or 16 Candles where the stud-falls-for-the-nice-girl story arcs were deftly employed.
Bill Clinton leveraged the camera to great effect when he confronted adultery rumors during his 1992 presidential campaign. Clinton appeared on 60 Minutes with his wife and acknowledged having "caused pain in my marriage." It worked because Clinton had the whiff of the caddish screw-up about him -- a familiar (and even darkly-endearing) narrative: This is who I am. And the clichéd America that is supposedly so sexually repressed elected him. Twice.
In Edwards' case, however, the camera became his Lorelei (or Carmen), the siren who beckoned him and then crushed him against the rocks. It was bad enough to be seduced by the camera, but Edwards' belief in both his own sleight-of-hand, and the delusion that the camera that served him so slavishly during his rise would redeem him from his fall, destroyed him.
The word "stupid" has wafted up from the rubble of John Edwards, but intelligence has nothing to do with it. Time and again, I have worked with very scandalized figures -- I haven't worked with a moron yet -- who are seduced by the likes of Mike Wallace who offers the figure "the chance to tell your side of the story," as if all mankind longs to hear more about Fascinating You. The failed calculation here is that 60 Minutes doesn't want to inform or deliver redemption; the show wants ratings, and ratings come from skewering cultural villains.
Vanity is ancient, as we know from the legend of Narcissus to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, where the demise of the gunslingers is tied to their proximity to the pulp-biographer who shadows them. In real life, as an FBI agent once told me, few things galvanized law enforcement against the late John Gotti more than when an Andy Warhol painting of the mob boss appeared on the cover of Time magazine -- which Gotti ordered framed and displayed in his social club.
What's new is the proliferation of media and the cultural embrace of Carmen Electrism, the orthodoxy that to be in all these media is the only way one can truly be.
The irony of Carmen Electrism is its presumption of transparency when it actually camouflages a terrible ground rule of media management: The camera is not a strategy, it is a tactic, which helps in discrete cases, but destroys in others.
No one understands this better than Publicity Survivor Elizabeth Taylor, who recently observed that Hollywood's train-wreck girls (presumably Lindsay, Britney and Paris) could reduce the paparazzi siege if they weren't provoking it so avidly. Indeed, in a photo of Spears on a gurney being wheeled to an ambulance, Spears was laughing. TV shrinks pontificated about how the "troubled" star was self-destructing, but she was actually having a blast there for a while -- provided that the cameras were trained upon her.
What Taylor was wisely suggesting is a hard sell to narcissists: Some crisis management requires going away for a while and working quietly on things that really matter.
As we learn more about the Edwards scandal, the more there is something cunning about it, as opposed to the fumbling, teenage sweatiness of the Clinton bimbo eruptions. When Monica Lewinsky exposed her thong, she confirmed the Bill Clinton we already knew. That's comedy. When Rielle Hunter, however, unsheathed her camera, she exposed the John Edwards that we never imagined. That's tragedy.
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