Joan Vennochi

The duplicitous candidate

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 14, 2010

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THE DESIRE for revenge and money inspired the tell-all book “The Politician.’’ Don’t let that stop you from reading it.

The twisted relationship between author Andrew Young and John Edwards, the presidential candidate exposed as a phony, lies at the heart of this dark story. But it also raises questions about the complicity of campaign staffers, and the media’s selective pursuit of political scandal.

By his own account, Young falls into a unique category of callow and sycophantic aide. The Edwards family used him because he let himself be used. For years, he went along with outrageous requests, leading up to the most outrageous: Two weeks before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Edwards persuaded Young to publicly accept paternity for the child Edwards fathered with his mistress, Rielle Hunter. Young, his wife and young children then went into hiding with Hunter. The funnelling of money to cover their expenses is now under investigation.

Young is clearly getting back at John and Elizabeth Edwards for cutting him loose, after what he contends were promises to help him financially. This is a tawdry tale of a spurned enabler, who salvaged enough damning voicemail, e-mail, and text messages to publish his own tabloid. In addition, Young turned over an alleged “sex tape’’ of Edwards and Hunter and was grilled in court over changing stories about where it was kept.

It’s sleazy. But you can’t read Young’s account - or similar revelations in “Game Change,’’ by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin - without thinking about the larger theme of presidential politics. How often does the quest for the White House become an unhealthy obsession, not just for a candidate and his spouse, but for the people around them? Who in the inner circle has the courage to walk away from a duplicitous candidate, as long as he remains a viable ticket to Washington? When and why do the media look away?

Edwards’s failing was bigger than infidelity. It was major consumer fraud. He sold himself as America’s keeper of moral greatness and a conscience for the poor, wrapped in the loving embrace of a cancer-stricken wife. Elizabeth Edwards marketed an inspirational brand of her own, also highly idealized, according to both books. Perhaps this couple’s single-minded pursuit loops back to the terrible death of their teenage son. But grief in the wake of a child’s tragic loss does not excuse the hypocrisy and unbridled ambition revealed in these accounts.

And the mainstream media should not be excused for its extreme lack of enthusiasm in following up on it.

In December 2007, the National Enquirer published a detailed story about Edwards’s affair, the pregnancy of the woman involved and the plot to have Young falsely claim to be the father. Edwards and his top advisers “expected the onslaught’’ of media questioning, Young writes. But nothing happened.

As David Perel, the former editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer who oversaw coverage of the Edwards affair, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “the photograph of Ms. Hunter pregnant and slew of well-documented facts in the Enquirer article did nothing to enervate Mr. Edwards’s brazen quest for power or budge the mainstream press from its comfortable seat in the campaign bus.’’

Maybe the National Enquirer was reasonable cause for some queasiness. But contrast the reticence to scrutinize a Democrat’s private life with the willingness to explore Republican John McCain’s alleged relationship with a female lobbyist .

Edwards’s fantastic alibi held until July 2008, when the National Enquirer reported on his visit with Hunter and the baby at a Los Angeles hotel. Young quotes Edwards calling him in tears to tell him, “Andrew, they caught me. It’s all over.’’

But, until the story seeped out via blogs and talk radio, the mainstream media avoided that report, too. In August 2008, Edward confessed the affair on “Nightline,’’ but denied paternity. He finally acknowledged fatherhood right before the publication of Young’s book.

Edwards’s presidential dreams were dashed after the New Hampshire primary. But he retained hopes of being chosen as Barack Obama’s running mate, or his attorney general. That’s the scariest part of this story, which should come with the subtitle, “Voter Beware.’’

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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