06/06/2011 12:34 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2011

It's Not Just the Sex: Why John Edwards Matters

There's a natural temptation to look the other way as the John Edwards story plays out. Don't. This story matters. To use a time-honored phrase, "it's not just about the sex." The preternaturally pretty and youthful Edwards is the Dorian Gray of American politics. His story has a lot to teach us about our culture and the way we choose our leaders.

And like so many tales of power, it eventually leads back to Wall Street.

I'm a Celebrity Politician... Get Me Out of Here!

Want to know what's wrong with our politics? He-e-e-re's Johnny! Edwards is a political Charlie Sheen, a media superstar fueled by his own addictions and ego. Why didn't we see it before? His story indicts the Usual Suspects, celebrity-driven campaigning and the media's herd mentality. But it also shines an unflattering light on progressives, the Democratic Party, and many of us who take pleasure in thinking that we're "better than" our broken political system.

As a contender for America's Next Top President. John Edwards had it all: the eyes, the smile, the catwalk confidence. Had Edwards won the nomination, he'd have played Tyra Banks to John McCain's Janice Dickinson. Fans know how that turned out.

What Edwards never had was a resumé. His political track record was cloudy at best. He wrote an editorial on Iraq in 2002 in support of Bush's war, not against it. In 2004 he ran as a cipher with a strong personal presence but a content-free message. He fell flat in his one critical performance that year, the Vice-Presidential debate with Dick Cheney. He was a high-octane salesman, a David Mamet character motivated by the sale and not the product.

Yet the media never stopped referring to Edwards as an inevitable Presidential contender. And when he ran in 2008 on an unambiguously left platform, progressives embraced him without ever asking him how he went from being the hawkish John Edwards of 2002 to the proudly anti-war candidate of 2008.

Will the Real John Edwards Please Stand Up?

As the nation now knows, he also went from being "Johnny Reid Edwards" (his legal name) to "John Edwards." As Zach Carter points out, "Johnny Reid Edwards" sounds like the name of a journeyman slide guitar player. (The Northern musicians I grew up among yearned for an authentic-sounding name like that.) But Edwards dropped the "Johnny" to distance himself from his roots. Like an illicit lover, his Southern upbringing was only brought out when it was time to meet his needs.

I only saw Edwards in person once, at an impromptu press conference. He seemed frenetic, agitated, wired, like a whippet dog whose Alpo had been laced with methedrine. Later that day I co-hosted The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur. Before the show Cenk said "Hey, something funny happened today. I was near the Beverly Hills Hotel and ran into John Edwards..." We now know that Edwards had visited Rielle Hunter at that hotel the night before.

Now we've all learned too much about John Edwards and his double life with Rielle. Some of us feel a little dirty because we've read about the secret payments, seen the sleazy video "interviews" (where she plies him with flattering questions and he answers with flirty looks), and heard about the pregnant sex video. Ugh. In the words of another Northern guitar player, I "wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

Old Money

But we do know. And we know that money kept his secret. Money's as big an ingredient in the John Edwards story as sex. Edwards has shown us that powerful politicians have a different relationship with money. Rich and powerful people are all too happy to write them checks or provide them with expensive favors.

Edwards had two financial benefactors for his cover-up -- the late Fred Baron, and Bunny Mellon, the then 99-year-old heiress to the Mellon fortune. Johnny Reid Edwards remained a Presidential contender only because he was able to tap some of the oldest, most institutionalized Wall Street money in the country through the Mellon family.

Bunny made her money the old-fashioned way: She inherited it. Born into a rich family, she became a lot richer when she married Paul Mellon. Paul's fortune originated with Thomas Mellon, who made his millions during the robber-baron era when rich and unscrupulous people could amass near-monopolistic wealth and then use it to crush competition, kill the free market, and corrupt the political process.

You know, like now.

Paul's father was Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary under Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. Andrew's attitude toward Americans victimized by Wall Street was brutal and shockingly direct: "... liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate... purge the rottenness out of the system ... People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people."

Those sentiments might not seem out of place in a Treasury Department meeting about home foreclosures today. And they'd fit in perfectly at Republican meetings about any economic subject, from Medicare to union-busting.

The Other "Other America"

Edwards' "The Two Americas" theme was destined to fail. While the vast majority of Americans live in the rocky, real, America, they're citizens of that other America in their dreams -- dreams fueled by media celebrities like John Edwards. Without his wealthy friends, Edwards' dream candidacy would have died. How can a politician who owes his position to secrets favors from the wealthy ever be a real reformer?

Here's another question: How many other politicians have owed this kind of secret debt? It wasn't inevitable that Edwards' secret would come out. Other secrets haven't.

Edwards may or may not have broken current law. But a system that allows powerful politicians to be in thrall to wealthy "friends" should be on trial, and his case provides a strong argument for making actions like his illegal in the future.

Maybe the Edwards case makes some of us uncomfortable because we don't like what it shows us about ourselves. Reporters who traveled with him must have seen the strange and disturbing mania I saw that day, yet they ignored it. Progressives were all too willing to set skepticism aside to embrace what, in the end, turned out to be manipulation and flattery.

And Democrats who feel superior to the GOP's field of trivial contenders might be reminded that their 2008 primaries were dominated by celebrity candidates -- a pretty boy, a First Lady, and a new politician made famous by one televised speech. Their bitter primaries were driven more by Democrats' self-identification with one candidate or another than by substantial differences over the issues.

In Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, a man stays eternally youthful while the face in his portrait reflects all the cynicism, corruption, and ravages of his life. Here's an unpleasant possibility worth considering: that if John Edwards is Dorian Gray, the rest of us are the picture.