The brighter the light, the darker the shadow...Nowhere is this old saying more fitting than with Andrew Young's new book, The Politician, an explosive, sometimes sordid insider's account of John Edwards presidential bids and his affair with Rielle Hunter.
Although blogs and the mainstream media will blaze with the details of Edwards' cheating -- both on his wife and the American public -- some of the most illuminating passages in the book deal with how a somewhat ordinary person's life can be overwhelmed by the charisma of a candidate and the lure of second-hand power. Anyone who has ever been around a political campaign, or for that matter a Hollywood movie set, knows that "stars" exert a kind of gravity that can cause their assistants to do things that seem crazy in any other context. As perhaps the most loyal aide ever to work for a presidential contender, Andrew Young became the man who never said no.
One of the most riveting stories in the book takes place at a Petsmart store where Andrew and his wife, Cheri, are in the midst of purchasing a habitat for a stray turtle they found on their property. (His kids named him "Mr. Turtle.") It is during this seemingly innocuous errand that Young receives a call on his cell phone from his boss, John. He leaves the reptile aisle to go sit outside on the curb as Edwards begs him to say he's the father of Rielle Hunter's baby. Though shocked, Young doesn't say no. Instead he listens as Edwards says, "You're family. A friend like no friend I ever had" (p. 235) and then offers to make sure Young is taken care of, financially, for the rest of his life.
It's important to know that while John Edwards was pressuring Young to pretend it was his baby, Elizabeth Edwards had spent months trashing Young both professionally and personally. Though she knew differently, she gossiped about how Young was Rielle Hunter's boyfriend and he was responsible for the furor swirling around the campaign. She inflated stories about Young's supposed criminal past (he went bankrupt during a "wild oats" period) and complained that he was incompetent. As Young writes, his reputation was so soiled that he would never be hired by anyone in politics. "I was fucked," he writes, "and at that moment I couldn't see that I had any options but to continue playing John Edwards's game."
Young hangs up the phone and greets his wife as she comes out of the pet shop. They go to McDonald's to pick up a Happy Meal for their son. In the second it takes to drive from the order station - "Chicken McNuggets and chocolate milk" - he breaks the news. Cheri first asks, "Are you out of your mind?" but eventually agrees.
It is in domestic scenes like this one, and other glimpses of life inside both the Edwards and Young families, that The Politician reveals more than almost any political book of recent memory. Whether it's Elizabeth Edwards calling to shout accusations during a Young family outing - see the chapter titled "Clown Night at the Golden Corral" - or John Edwards begging for help in the middle of the night, you get the idea that these people are more like socially-obsessed high schoolers than serious adults. It's frightening to imagine that this ego driven man was a heartbeat away from being President of the United States of America. Terrifying. Truly.
Among my other favorite moments, and those that will make headlines, are:
- Tales of heiress Bunny Mellon and super-rich lawyer Fred Baron spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to send the Youngs and Rielle Hunter from one resort to another as the national media pursued them. (The "Bunny Money" was sometimes sent in boxes of chocolate marked "For the Confederacy.")
- Edwards asking Andrew to steal a diaper for DNA testing to make sure that the baby is his.
- The Edwardses summoning Andrew Young in the middle of the night to fix their broken bed.
- Rielle remarking "It's good to be king," as she admires John Edwards from a cozy chair in the house he shares with Elizabeth
- Reille Hunter's belief that the baby she was having with Edwards was the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk who had died a few years back.
- The sex tape found in Andrew and Cheri's house, carelessly thrown in the garbage with the words "special" written on it. Some reporters have accused Andrew of actually recording the sex tape, but truth be told, Rielle's video skills are the only ones used here. And most of the time, John apparently does not need a partner.
- And lastly, the coup de grace, Rielle and John and Andrew cozily sitting on the back porch eating ribs. At one point, Rielle talks about how perfect the day is, and John promises to marry Rielle after Elizabeth dies. "This is the way it should be," he says, "No stress, no fighting."
As the book says, when John Edwards was finally caught by a tabloid reporter as he is visiting Rielle and the baby at the Beverly Hilton, he abandons his promises to Andrew. Their relationship ends with a scene that is reminiscent of mafia meetings in the movies: an isolated location. Edwards pulls up in a big black car with tinted windows. But this time he's not such a big man. He confesses that Elizabeth had taken away his phone and his car keys. "She yells at me all night, and when I sleep she gets in my face and screams." Nothing is resolved between Young and Edwards.
After reading the book it's hard to agree with what Andrew Young did but you can understand how he went astray. Early on, he thought he had stumbled onto the next John F. Kennedy. Those benefactors, who helped fund the charade, perhaps got entangled in the desire for a better direction for our country. He adopted Edwards as a hero, and a replacement for his own father. (The senior Young, once pastor of the famous Duke Chapel, was "outed" in a sex scandal of his own.) Eventually he was like the proverbial frog in a pot of water who never notices that the temperature is rising until it's too late.