John Edwards' Ken Doll Lust

When it comes to politicians and sex, our expectations are not all that great. Human nature being what it is, there will continue to be adultery no matter how many instructive scandals they're exposed to. But you really would think that by now they'd know how to make a decent public confession.

Yet there was John Edwards, ignoring the many, many previous examples of why it is so important to admit the truth quickly and keep it simple. Unable to deny any longer that he had had an affair with a campaign worker, he insisted on parsing. It was all a mistake. If she was paid off, it wasn't my money.

And, in what may be a new high in the annals of weaseldom: my wife's cancer was in remission.

As to why he did it, Edwards blamed "an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want." That we could have figured out on our own.

For a man bent on clearing things up, Edwards seemed strangely incurious during his interview on Nightline on ABC. He had no idea why his national finance chairman has been funneling payments to his ex-mistress, and he was apparently never tempted to pick up the phone to ask. His 2 a.m. visit with the woman, Rielle Hunter, at a Beverly Hills hotel last month was a secret mission to keep her from going public about their liaison, the briefness and meaninglessness of which cannot be stressed too often. And he has no idea what baby that was in The National Enquirer picture.

Edwards met Hunter in a bar in New York in 2006, and paid her $114,000 to follow him around, documenting his every move for campaign videos. (In a TV interview back in happier times, Hunter called the experience "life-altering.") Said videos were posted, then mysteriously disappeared from the Edwards Web site, with officials muttering something about campaign finance rules. They exist today on YouTube, where you can see the candidate sitting on his plane, grinning like a hound dog in heat, while he tells Hunter that he doesn't want to be "some plastic Ken doll that you put in front of the audience," and pokes himself in the chest while announcing, "I actually want the country to see who I am -- who I truly am."

When The National Enquirer ran a story that Hunter was pregnant and named Edwards as the father, he denied that there had been any relationship. One of his campaign workers stepped up and took responsibility for the baby. But when the little girl was born, Hunter did not list any father on the birth certificate.

All this is weirdly reminiscent of the saga of Grover Cleveland, my favorite American president when it comes to sex scandals. He had barely been nominated in 1884 when a small, scurrilous newspaper from his hometown of Buffalo accused him of being the father of a love child born to Maria Halpin, a store clerk. She later took to drink, and Cleveland, a bachelor, arranged to have the baby adopted by friends.

"Moral Monster," said my favorite headline, in The Cincinnati Penny Post. "Grover Cleveland's True Character Laid Bare. A Boon Companion to Buffalo Harlots. A Drunken, Fighting, Roistering Rou." The scandal almost cost him the election, and the baby inspired a famous political slogan: Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.

It probably wasn't Cleveland's child. The birth certificate lists the baby's name as Oscar Folsom Cleveland, and Oscar Folsom was Cleveland's married law partner, who had been killed in an accident before the birth. But Cleveland stolidly refused to defend himself and Folsom's name was never really connected to the scandal. Then, once he was safely in the White House, the new president married Folsom's beautiful 21-year-old daughter, Frances.

This is as good as it gets for sex scandal survivors. The marriage was happy and Cleveland wound up serving two terms. The American public has always had an extremely pragmatic attitude toward their elected officials and will overlook almost anything if they believe the sinning pol can deliver on the job.

If Edwards's political career is toast, it will be because he has always seemed to be less than a sum of his parts: the position papers, the "Two Americas," the photogenic grin, the supersmart wife. The only piece of the package that consistently disappointed was the man himself. He wasn't a very good running mate for John Kerry, and as a presidential candidate, he always struck me as being about 2 inches deep.

We take whatever lessons we can get from these sad public messes. We will marvel, yet again, at how much less damage would have been done if the offender had taken the inventive tactic of not lying. But on one front, at least, human behavior really does seem to be evolving. Edwards told his wife that she didn't need to sit loyally by his side while the TV cameras rolled.

© 2008 The New York Times

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