The New York Times
Books of The Times
The Dutiful and the Mind-Boggling
By JANET MASLIN
Published: January 28, 2010
Andrew Young’s hero was an inspiring Southern orator and a paragon of Christian virtue. He was a pillar of his community. Then he was photographed in compromising circumstances, outed as an adulterer and beset by a scandal that destroyed his career. “They caught me, Andrew,” the Rev. Bob Young confessed to his heartbroken teenage son.
The traumatized son later went on to subordinate his life to John Edwards’s political career, becoming one of his most trusted aides. And he allowed his own reputation to be ruined in a vain effort to save Mr. Edwards from embarrassment. How much of that dutiful behavior can be explained by his father’s fall?
“Armchair psychologists will say that when John Edwards came along, I adopted him as a substitute for my father,” Mr. Young writes in “The Politician,” his mind-boggling book about the sheer freakiness of Mr. Edwards’s hubris, ambition and dishonesty. Of course they will. Armchair psychologists don’t have it any easier than this.
But the Young-Edwards version of the Faust story defies reductive theorizing. It’s just too bizarre for that. Mr. Young describes how he; his wife, Cheri; his children; and Mr. Edwards’s pregnant girlfriend, Rielle Hunter, all moved in together (“the kids awakened to find a strange lady in the house”) while Mr. Young allowed himself to be falsely named as the baby’s father-to-be. The Youngs’ “unnervingly surreal misadventure” is as strange as science fiction. The people in this uneasy household gathered each week to watch “American Idol” together without noticing that their own drama could out-soap anything television had to offer.
Although the basics of the Edwards meltdown are summarized in the current best seller “Game Change” (a book that got its reporting right, if Mr. Young is to be believed), the devil is in the details. And those details reflect an astonishing degree of either cynicism or delusional thinking on Mr. Edwards’s part. Having worked as an assistant to Mr. Edwards for 10 years, Mr. Young thought he knew a lot about how this politician’s mind worked. Still, Mr. Edwards could surprise him in chillingly Hitchcockian ways.
For instance, after Mr. Young finagled a way to explain Ms. Hunter’s presence in Mr. Edwards’s hotel room in Florida and get her out of there unnoticed, he says, Mr. Edwards just looked at him blankly and said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Rielle wasn’t in Florida.” What was this: “Gaslight”? A trip to the Twilight Zone? An exercise in lawyerly deniability, to which Mr. Edwards apparently often resorted? A conversation being secretly recorded? Or something even scarier?
“I could tell from his tone of voice that he truly believed what he was saying,” Mr. Young writes. “I decided that he was either the best liar in the world or he was having some sort of psychological episode.” For the record, Mr. Young says he has records of “more than 30 calls with him, Rielle, and the Westin on the day of this incident.”
Mr. Young first entered Mr. Edwards’s orbit by falling hard, smitten by his Elmer Gantry-style charm. Mr. Young worked for him as a volunteer, a driver, a body man and then as operations manager. Yes, this entailed changing light bulbs for the Edwards family, but it also meant being extremely close to his employer.
With a dangerously inflated sense of his own importance, Mr. Young describes his own aspirations and magical thinking. (He joked that he would deliver the Edwards’s groceries in hopes that they would some day spend 16 years in the White House — during a vice presidency and then presidency.) “It’s like being the best friend of the quarterback in high school,” he says. “You protect him even if that means helping him get away with stuff.”
At first the duplicity was relatively minor. (Mr. Edwards, wearing an Italian suit, commandeered the “Made in America” label from Mr. Young’s garment in case it showed while he addressed a labor-union audience.) Then came two life-altering events: the diagnosis that Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate’s strong-willed wife, had cancer and the arrival of Ms. Hunter, who was paid to make videos of Mr. Edwards on the campaign trail.
Mr. Young found himself hemmed in by a philandering boss, the boss’s wildly indiscreet girlfriend and two angry wives, Mr. Edwards’s and his own. Did Mr. Young, from that point on, have any choice in how he could behave?
He insists that he didn’t. And he claims that there were numerous reasons he became embroiled in the lies about the paternity of Ms. Hunter’s baby girl. (Mr. Edwards has since acknowledged that he is the child’s father. He is now legally separated from his wife.) For starters, the Edwards campaign could not risk alienating Elizabeth Edwards’s many admirers. She was better liked than Mr. Edwards, although “The Politician” will do nothing to further that sentiment.
Initially motivated by slavish loyalty, and expecting to be rewarded for his sacrifice, Mr. Young wound up leasing a house that he couldn’t afford. (The book reveals that the philanthropist Bunny Mellon, a big Edwards fan, unwittingly financed some Hunter-related expenses. Mr. Young has testified to a federal grand jury about the campaign’s financial practices.) By taking the rap for both philandering and indiscretion, Mr. Young became unemployable. Foolhardy as he looked, he feared that recanting the paternity claim would make matters worse. And Mr. Edwards, according to this book, freely played the cancer card. “I can’t let her die knowing this,” Mr. Young says Mr. Edwards said about his affair with Ms. Hunter.
Despite its attention to such homey details as the Young family’s pet turtle, “The Politician” doesn’t really take off until Ms. Hunter barges in. Suddenly, Mr. Young says, his wife and children had a diva in their midst. “I had never known a woman who needed more attention, but on the day I received four calls in the space of an hour, I knew something unusual was going on,” Mr. Young writes. Yet when he describes her disparagingly as someone who was excited by power, money and danger, he might as well be talking about himself.
The factoids in “The Politician” are apt to be widely disseminated. But this, like “Game Change,” is a book worth reading for its larger drama. With a title that ultimately works like a shiv in the ribs, Mr. Young’s book examines what a politician really is: the value of his words (Mr. Edwards’s high-and-mighty denunciation of Bill Clinton on moral grounds has become priceless), the extent of his feelings of entitlement, the outrageousness of his ego (“Let’s talk about you!” Mr. Young would say, without Mr. Edwards’s realizing he was joking) and the gap between his public convictions and private behavior.
And Mr. Young, for all his discreet vengefulness, is sympathetic to any politician’s plight. The funny thing is that he may actually have done Mr. Edwards a favor. By any traditional standard this book would demolish Mr. Edwards’s career. Today disgrace doesn’t necessarily work that way. Regardless of whether Mr. Edwards can rise again, he now has nowhere left to fall.