John, Elizabeth, Rielle and the dumpster fire at the end of the world
There’s a train rolling to a stop just outside of town. It’s a long train, and each flatbed carries 20 dumpsters. Each dumpster is filled to overflowing with nuclear waste and flaming grease. As the copter shot pulls away the final credits roll over the first few bars of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” We can all breathe a sigh of relief – all is well now, but just a few moments ago this train was hurtling at top speed toward the city center, its murdered conductor’s body holding the throttle in full-steam position.
This isn’t some wholesome, Focus on the Family-friendly Thomas the Train, folks. No, sir. This is the toxic, Viagra-addled nuclear dumpster grease fire Johnny the Train from Hell, and it came that close to plowing headlong into the unshielded nards of American democracy.
Have I subjected this particular metaphor to enough “enhanced interrogation” already? Good. Let’s move on.
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the rise and fall of Sen. John Edwards in light of his recent Infidelity Triple Crown (babydaddy, divorce, engagement to babymama). Mainly the fall. If you’ve been reading S&R for awhile, you might remember that at the outset of Campaign 2008 Season I was an enthusiastic Edwards supporter and I was pretty torqued when he finally bowed out.
Edwards is an outsider, and there’s not much the establishment likes less than uppity lower-class trash trying to shoehorn their way into the country club. Why? Well, you can trust people like you. If another guy grew up a fortunate son just like you did you have things in common. You share cultural experiences. He’s one of you. But if he’s one of them, you have to deal with something you don’t understand and can’t count on. Hell, what if the crazy bastard wants to, you know, start helping the poor? How is that good for you, exactly?
Am I being inflammatory? Maybe. Am I painting with an awfully broad brush? No doubt – you can’t talk about class factors house to house. But tell you what – prove me wrong. And you won’t do that by providing me with a couple nice exceptions, because for every Horatio Alger story you show me I’m going to respond with a few million hard examples of folks who didn’t manage to overcome their modest means. Life is a 100-yard dash and your chances of crossing the finish line first are greatly enhanced if you begin the race with a 90-yard head start. You may like the rhetorical flourish of the stirring example, but I’m a lot more persuaded by the 99.9% rule than I am the .1% exception.
Or maybe it’s wrong to say I was an Edwards supporter, per se. Rather, I was a supporter of his platform. I’ve been around long enough to know better than to confuse the message with the campaigning man. Still, who knew it was going to go this wrong?
Recent events have led all kinds of people to offer all kinds of opinions on the man, and since I was pretty vocal before the train jumped the tracks, I thought it might be appropriate for me to wade in and comment on the wreckage. At the very least, it will give folks a chance to tell me what a doofus I was, right?
So, here are the thoughts that occur to me.
1: STFU. A lot of people seem to know a remarkable amount about the marriage of John and Elizabeth Edwards, and since America was founded on self-righteous Puritan priggery, they feel a dour sort of Onward Christian Soldiers! obligation to pronouncements and public prudery and pontification that’s breathtaking in its Hawthornesque audacity. The problem is this: the only two people who know what’s going on inside a marriage are the people in it, and sometimes they don’t even have a clue. I didn’t used to know this, but it’s a lesson I learned the hard way. No, I’m not providing details, but trust me.
Elizabeth Edwards may have been Mother Teresa in public, Paula Deen in the kitchen and the Whore of Babylon in the sack. Or not. Some who have better knowledge than any of us have described her as a woman driven by even greater political ambitions than her husband – in other words, they’re saying she had a whiff of the Hillary about her – and that’s not an odor associated with the kind of universal sympathy she’s received of late. She may also be colder than the walk-in freezer at Applebee’s and John may have forgotten what sex was like long before cancer struck. Or she may have condoned his Willy Walkabout act. Or she may have had affairs herself. The truth may be such that if we knew all the details we wouldn’t wonder how he could cheat on her, we’d wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.
The point is that I don’t know, and neither do you. We like to assume the best about a woman who seems so very sympathetic – I know, and I’m with you on this – but knowing and assuming are very different propositions, aren’t they? So you and I and all our self-appointed morality police need to sit down, kick back and enjoy a nice tall glass of Shut the Fuck Up Juice.
You have strong principles? Good. Live by them. Let your actions be a beacon to all who gaze upon you. If y’all are like me, though, you have all you can do to manage your own damned lives, let alone somebody else’s.
2: Do the Right Thing (Politically), Dumbass. All that said, we do know that Edwards cheated on his wife, and moralizing aside, it is fair to nard-stomp him for being a goddamned idiot. You’re a politician. You’re running for president. That’s a path you chose, it’s a path with certain rules, and those are rules I’m sure they explained to you when you signed up. Membership has it privileges, of course, especially membership in the House of Lords United States Senate. But it also comes with a couple of drawbacks, not the least of which is a 24/7/4ever spotlight following you everywhere you go. And there’s also the large pack of rabid jackals eager to rip you into small, easily digested chunks. Don’t forget the jackals.
Jesus H. Tebow, John – you touched off a debate over whether or not the fucking National Enquirer is deserving of (or eligible for) a Pulitzer Prize! Nothing you ever did or ever will do can top that for legacy: may vandals spray paint it on your tombstone every year on the anniversary of your death until the end of time.
Does any of this really need saying? Really? If the marriage wasn’t working, fine. It happens. Get a divorce, then move on. But don’t put your entire party – hell, the entire free goddamned world – at risk.
What would have happened if Edwards had somehow landed the nomination and then the story had broken? I’ll tell you what. Right now Sarah Palin would be one chicken bone away from the shiny red button.
3: It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference. Of course, Edwards was never any real threat to win the Democratic nomination, and as such his hijinks never posed any threat to party or country. Unless Obama had decided pick him as a running mate, which wasn’t going to happen because Barry O’s people probably knew more about John and Rielle than the whole Enquirer staff put together.
Which leaves me reflecting on what if. As noted above, whatever I may have thought about Edwards at the time and whatever may have transpired since, I felt like he was pushing a very important message (although he was slanting it the wrong way). Inequality of economic opportunity is a disease that is slowly but surely sucking the life out of America, and I fear that even if, starting today, we did absolutely everything right, it would still be too late. We were once The Greatest Nation on Earth®, but thanks to a long bout of pathological self-interest (the I got mine and fuck you type instead of the “rightly understood” variety) and persistent anti-intellectualism, our days at the forefront of the world are numbered.
Would Edwards have made a difference? Hard to say. For starters, who knows if he’d have followed through on his promises? He may have turned out just like the guy who eventually won. If he had insisted on making poverty the centerpiece of his administration, well, this is DC we’re talking about. Making a big deal over the plight of poor people would have gone over about as well as inviting a leper to a Obsessive/Compulsives Anonymous pot luck. If you think the GOP is waging a campaign of unbridled obstructionism now, understand something: the stink Edwards was raising on the campaign trail was, in principle, several miles to the left of Obama’s “socialist” agenda. Within two weeks of the inauguration the Minority Party would probably have fetched out every musket they could find and barricaded themselves in the Capitol broom closet.
Would he have been up to the task? Maybe not. On one of my lists, the estimable Guy Saperstein recently recalled meeting Edwards and talking with him, and his conclusion was that he was a bit of a lightweight. “Of course, there were things I liked about Edwards: His pugnacity, his background, his concern for the poor, etc.,” Guy says. “But in the end, I thought he was becoming too one-dimensional, not building out his critique and, in the case of health care, not substantive enough for my tastes.” Guy is pretty darned sharp, and his opinion here is enough to cast some doubt.
On the other hand, nobody knows as much as you’d like on every important issue, and a guy who’s a bit of lightweight can hire some intellectual juggernauts to follow him around and do the heavy lifting as long as you know enough. Besides, what guarantee do you have that the job will get done if you elect the heavierweight? Obama is allegedly rock-solid on the details of health care plans, but ask me how happy I am with the job he’s done so far. Go ahead, ask.
So there it is. John and his new family are setting up house in a $3.5 million extravaganza by the sea. I wish them well, I suppose, and hope that whatever they do in the future makes them better people. I also wish the very best for Elizabeth Edwards. There can’t be anything about this Hollywood-sized hubrispalooza that’s easing her life-and-death battle with cancer.
I also wish the best for America, because whatever becomes of that train on the outskirts of town, somewhere an even nastier bullet train metaphorically packed with pocket nukes, PCPs and mutant anthrax is probably headed our way at top speed.
Welcome to the Fall of Rome.