Friday, December 03, 2010

The Perils of Working for Politicians


Earlier this year, formerly loyal political aide Andrew Young (not to be confused with the great Civil Rights activist of the same name) published his side of the sordid saga that was John Edwards. I decided to wait until it was released in paperback until I bought it, though I would have definitely bought it in hardcover if Andrew Young had included Powell's City of Books on his limited book tour.

In November, I noticed that it was available in paperback, so I just had to buy a copy and read it. Usually, I am reading several books at once. I'll read a chapter or two in several books each day (its usually divided by genres, so I'm not reading two novels at once). However, I stopped reading all the other books I'm currently reading just because I could not put The Politician down. It reads like an incredible John Grisham novel, and I was amused when even Andrew Young mentioned learning from the characters in Grisham's novels (which seem to be about idealistic young lawyers who realize that they are in too deep with corrupt lawyers or law firms or other organizations). On page 326, Young wrote: "My fear may have been fueled by paranoia. However, it was justified. I had been uprooted and then isolated from friends, and I had read enough John Grisham novels to believe that superlawyers empowered with endless amounts of money could do terrible things."

The reason why this book appeals to me is because Andrew Young had a job for a decade that I have wanted since 1993 when I saw the documentary The War Room, which made George Stephanopoulos and James Carville stars for all the background work they did helping Bill Clinton get elected president. George Stephanopoulos had the job I have dreamed about since 1993 and I devoured his memoirs in 1999 instead of reading class reading assignments in college. I don't know why such a job appeals to me, but I consider it to be among my top dream jobs (novelist, of course, remains my top choice). I think it has to do with my natural born loyalty gene, which makes me the perfect kind of assistant (as all politicians value loyalty). Since I became a Yeoman in the Navy, I've learned how to be a personal administrative assistant and when I've worked for awesome people, I have actually enjoyed it.

The best kind of politician is extroverted and a people person. Over the years, I've learned that extroverts generally aren't the most intellectually smart people (Bill Clinton might be the rare exception), at least when it comes to learning things in depth. This is where having an assistant who learns the details of any given subject and able to write a brief with all the essentials would come in handy. My personality, passion, and experience has made me the perfect political aide. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck finding the politician. The two that I've worked on their campaigns for local office did not win. Had they won, I have no doubt that they would've hired me to be their staff assistant.

Andrew Young sounds like the same kind of person. He wrote in his book that he hated public speaking and preferred to be behind the scenes. He developed a great talent towards fundraising, which is another important skill that politicians value in their staff members. When he first saw John Edwards in 1998, he was taken in by his charisma. He thought he saw a future president and volunteered on Edwards' Senate campaign. When Edwards won, Young got a job at one of the local offices in North Carolina. This allowed him to become a kind of liaison between the Senator and his constituents, and as he proved his loyalty and willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty (which included taking on jobs that blur the line between professional and personal, such as becoming a sort of personal butler to the Edwards family), he became part of the close circle. Both John and Elizabeth Edwards told him several times that he's like family. As the closeness grew, John even supposedly referred to Andrew as his "best friend", despite their 12 year age difference and their boss / employee relationship.

The memoir is thankfully written in chronological order. I usually prefer memoirs to be written chronologically, as I hate it when people jump around in recounting their experiences in books. It might be considered "boring" to write a straight-forward narrative, but its easier to really get into the story and live through the experience as you read the book. The more you get into the book, the more it begins to feel like how cults happen. Its a slow progression before you realize what you've gotten yourself into. At some point, you cross a sort of "point of no return", where cutting your losses seems foolish because of the amount of time, energy, or even money you put into the experience. Slowly, but steadily, the Edwards put more and more demands on Young as the line between official duties and personal favours got blurred. Even more remarkable is that Young's wife never liked the Edwards family much and thought they were taking advantage of Young's loyalty. Its remarkable that his wife tolerated as much as she did, including the harassing phone calls from Elizabeth later on (when Young became a pariah for his complicity in helping John to keep mistress Rielle Hunter a secret from his wife).

So, what would possess a man with a young family to be at the Edwards family's beck and call nearly 24 / 7? Well, it was the belief that John Edwards would be president someday and desire to be a part of something that was good for the world: formulating policies that fit your values and worldview. Those who develop a long, loyal working relationship with a career politician enjoy the kind of reflected glory and privilege that comes from having direct access. A longtime political aide can serve as a gatekeeper between the politician and the people who want to meet with him. This is very intoxicating.

One interesting gem of info in this book is that John Kerry and John Edwards did not really like one another. Their partnership in the 2004 election was based on Democratic politics, but according to Young, the presidential and vice-presidential candidates lacked chemistry with one another. Edwards had apparently called Kerry "an asshole" after a first meeting with him. After he was selected as the running mate, John and Teresa Heinz Kerry were scheduled to spend the night at the Edwards home after a joint rally in North Carolina. Young revealed that the Kerrys took one look at the Edwards mega-mansion and deemed it not good enough to stay overnight. Amazing how much obscene wealth can corrupt people. Its not like the Edwards were living in a trailer park. They were millionnaires themselves in a house that many Americans would love to live in, but it wasn't good enough for the Kerrys to stay overnight? Asshole is right! This book confirms my low opinion of John Kerry.

After the defeat in 2004, John Edwards was without a job because he could not run for reelection to the Senate seat he had held simultaneously with his vice presidential run. He already had his eye on 2008, but he needed a way to stay viable in the public eye. His answer was to form a non-profit organization devoted to fighting poverty and connect it to a university. It helped that Edwards had a couple of super-wealthy big financial backers, such as Bunny Mellon, who believed in him and his strong possibility of becoming president. These ultra wealthy backers would only end up funding a scheme to keep Rielle silent and hidden away, with Young serving as the "mistress sitter". This was the career trajectory that Young probably had not foreseen. The ultimate question is: how could he be so stupid?!? Even his wife thought it was crazy.

John's relationship with a flaky "New Age" party girl golddigger began in 2006. Though Edwards had presented himself as a faithful family man who never strayed in his marriage, Young seems to hint that such claims might not be true. During the campaigns, he noticed women slipping handwritten notes into Edwards hands and he would put them in his pocket. It could be the case that a loyal political aide would rather pretend that the obvious did not happen than to admit that Edwards was being a major hypocrite. After all, Edwards had said in 1999 during Clinton's impeachment trial: "I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen." Those words should be printed on parchment paper and framed for him to read every morning for the rest of his life!

What was it about Rielle Hunter that caused a rising politician to have one of the most spectacular self-destructions we've ever seen in our lifetime? The way Young portrays her in his book is exactly how I pictured her in all the news articles I had read about her and the scandal since it broke in the summer of 2008. She's flaky, needy, materialistic, and phony. Her belief in New Age spiritualism is an insult to everyone who believes in it because it is people like her that give New Age spiritualism a bad reputation (as a flaky, easy form of self-centered spirituality). My guess is that she probably saw the spiritual "documentary" The Secret and believed every word. However, her ability to manifest the materialism her heart desired was to sleep with wealthy men. By the time she met John Edwards, she was well experienced in the art of picking up rich men in hotel bars and lounges. That's where she met Edwards and she knew how to flatter him by comparing him to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. Her first words to him apparently was: "You're so hot!"

As I read The Politician, the question that kept cropping up was how could someone with presidential ambitions be so easily taken with cheap come-ons from obvious groupie whores? Was many months of bed-shaking sex with a younger, more physically attractive woman than his wife worth his marriage or ambitions? His self-destruction makes me think of the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah. A powerful man was destroyed by a woman who knew what she was doing. Sometimes I wonder if Rielle was a Republican operative sent to destroy Edwards. Mission accomplished! America might love a redemption story, but I don't see Edwards ever making a comeback because as the book reveals, he is the lowest of the low. If John Kerry was an asshole, Edwards would be the stuff that comes out of it. Cheating on one's spouse might be a forgiveable offense (no one seems to hold Clinton in ill regard after putting us through the whole Monica debacle in 1998), but cheating on a spouse who was diagnosed with cancer and was more popular than him is probably the unpardonable sin in American politics.

Unlike Young, I was never truly convinced John Edwards was presidential material. Though I was leaning towards him in the 2004 Democratic primary, my support ultimately went to Howard Dean early on and has never been betrayed. Dean is someone I'd love to be a political aide to, as he seems to be a genuine guy. In 2008, I was conflicted between Hillary and Obama. I wished that both could be president, but I went with Obama. In the Edwards camp, they believed (like many people) that America was not ready for either a female or an African American president. Edwards hoped to ride the racist, sexist vote to the White House. In 2007, I met an old time politically connected Democrat who tried to convince me to join the Edwards camp because of that reason, but I knew America was ready for an unprecedented, historical presidency.

By the time I finished reading the book, my suspicions were confirmed about John Edwards. He seems to be pretty shallow, whose seeds of destruction were sown during his childhood. His mother could never say no to him and believed that he was her darling golden child who could do no wrong. This creates in a person a sense of "the rules don't apply to me", which is exactly what John Edwards had claimed taken over his senses when he tried to explain why he had the affair to Bob Woodruff during a famous interview on the day of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Part of the doubts I had about Edwards being "presidential material" was the fact that he had only served one term in the U.S. Senate. Though Obama was only a senator for 4 years when he became president, he did have legislative experience in the Illinois state senate and he was a community organizer. Its amazing to realize that in the Democratic party, Edwards failed to gain traction among voters which could be partly due to his lack of experience, while in the Republican party, a politician with little more than good looks can be seen as a presidential front-runner. If any two raving narcissists should hook up for a hot affair, it should be John Edwards and Sarah Palin. How's that for bi-partisanship?!?

The one moment that should have made Andrew Young run for his life was the day Rielle Hunter found out that she was pregnant and claimed that it was John Edwards' baby. Instead, Edwards asked Young to do him the biggest favour of their lives: claim that the baby is actually Young's. This was not meant to be a long-term solution, but the timing couldn't have been worse for Edwards. The Iowa Caucus was coming up and he was gaining in the polls. News like this would have killed his presidential hopes (something Edwards should have considered the first time Rielle went to his hotel room).

I may be a loyal person, but I think even I would have my limits on loyalty. Knowing myself, I think my response would have been: "Hell no! You got yourself into this mess and you can get yourself out of it. I'm not lying for you, I'm not going to jail for you, and I'm not going to play this charade anymore." What did Young do? He went along with it, which began the nightmare period of his life.

Well, maybe not a complete nightmare. Edwards' uber-wealthy supporter funded a life on the run that included posh resorts in Florida, a ski chalet in Aspen, and a $10,000 a month villa in Santa Barbara. The condition was that Rielle had to live with the Young family during her pregnancy and when her child was born. As Young reported, Rielle was needy and dependent on a "guru" who had celebrity clients. Rielle wouldn't order a sandwich without calling her guru for advice about what kind of sauce to use. Rielle had also ran up the expenses on the room service at a hotel in Florida. So long as a wealthy donor was willing to pay for all expenses, Rielle did not care. It disgusts me that she believes herself to be a spiritual person. She's a user and a golddigging whore who mistook her vagina for Visa ("It's everywhere he wants to be").

When Edwards dropped out of the race before January ended, after a disappointing finish in the South Carolina primary where he expected to have a hometown advantage (he grew up in South Carolina and lives in the state to the north), he wanted Young to continue keeping a close watch on Rielle because he had hoped to be named Vice President or Attorney General in Hillary's or Obama's administration. What a charade! As the Youngs dealt with Rielle's needy demands and harassing phonecalls from Elizabeth (who believed that Andrew was the one who had an affair with Rielle and ruined John's chance to become president), the gig was finally up when John paid a visit to Rielle's hotel room in Beverly Hills where reporters had a stake-out based on an anonymous tip.

What was the price of loyalty? Andrew Young's employment prospects were ruined, though I don't understand why. If I was in a hiring position, I would hire him in a heartbeat. He made a huge mistake, but I understand why he made those mistakes. The whole sordid saga shows exactly why boundaries need to be established early on and set in stone, and a system of checks and balances needs to be set up. If I was a political aide, I would make one condition: the ability to speak the unvarnished truth without being fired. So, if a politician I worked for was flirting too heavily with a lady, I would want the right to point out that it might not be a good idea. I can see where things lead. And if that weren't enough, I would tell the politician a quick summary of the plot of the most brilliant novel I have ever read: The Bonfire of the Vanities, which shows how one simple mistake can snowball into a complete media circus.

Hubris is a great word that describes this whole episode. When one gets to the point where they believe that the rules don't apply to them, they have entered the danger zone of hubris. At some point, it will all come crashing down on them, like the temple that Sampson destroyed, which killed him as well. Good riddance to John Edwards. I hope he never attempts a comeback at public life ever again. He ruined his chances at anything greater and has a lot of bad karma to work on. I'd say that the best option for him is to do charitable work in the developing world, which is what he seems to be doing. He can make a positive impact on people who have never heard of him.

I hope, though, that Andrew Young is given a chance at finding a new career. He deserves it. Supposedly his book has been optioned for a movie. I can't wait to see that! I think I'd love to see Greg Kinnear or Tom Cruise play John Edwards, Kathleen Turner as Elizabeth Edwards, someone like Jessica Simpson or Cameron Diaz as Rielle Hunter, and Paul Rudd as Andrew Young. That would be an awesome cast.

So, if you're looking for a politically gripping read a la John Grisham, please check out The Politician by Andrew Young. Its intriguing, infuriating, and ultimately blows your mind on what a colossal waste of talented potential. The ultimate lesson in all of this is that John Edwards tried to grasp too much too quickly. Had he paced himself better, he might have had a longer political career instead of the most fascinating self-implosion we've ever seen in our lifetime. Too bad this scandal did not happen to someone like George W. Bush, for it might have spared our country the pain of the disaster we're still living in. Perhaps Edwards' self-destruction saved our country from more disaster. People interested in running for political office and those who hope to work for politicians all need to read this book. Its a cautionary tale for the ages.

1 comment:

Julie said...

I don't think anyone's completely beyond redemption...that being said, the story of John Edwards' failure is so sad. i actually caucused for him in 2008. So i was disappointed when i found out he had an affair. (Not only that, but that he had lied about it and later falsely claimed that his child with Rielle wasn't his.)
Speaking of which, i don't envy the child...i think her name is Quinn? I mean, she probably won't lack for money, but her biological parents are...well...crappy.
Only time will tell, i guess...