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John and Elizabeth Edwards: Scenes from a marriage

There still appears to be a sizable minority in America who favors big news organizations at least in part for their broad ambitions, thoroughness, balance and sense of restraint.

But ain’t it a shame when those highfalutin’, old-school intentions get in the way of the basic mission -- delivering the audience a “Hey Martha!” scoop now and then with their breakfast cereal?

It seems the higher values and a healthy dose of old-fashioned incredulity (Could he really be that big a cad?) put America’s most prestigious news organizations on the sidelines as presidential hopeful John Edwards embarked on an extramarital affair of epic audacity.

After reading “Game Change,” a sweeping new account of campaign 2008 by veteran journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, a reader might wonder: How could the schmucks on the bus miss the operatic disintegration of Edwards’ once widely admired partnership with his wife, Elizabeth?

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Since I was (very briefly) one of those paid observers on the Edwards campaign, I thought I would try to assess how we all missed this one, big time.

But first a bit about the book, whose revelations about Edwards have been excerpted extensively in New York magazine.

Under the headline “Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster,” the writers depict a humble candidate transformed by fame into a narcissist who ignored fervent entreaties by his staff to turn away from a loopy, new-agey admirer named Rielle Hunter.

As the National Enquirer would reveal in October 2007 (a couple months before the Iowa caucuses), Edwards instead embraced Hunter as not only fan but as fly-along campaign videographer, chief sycophant and lover.

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The most striking revelations in “Game Change” are not about Edwards but about his wife and longtime political collaborator, Elizabeth.

In counterpoint to the image well known to Americans of Elizabeth Edwards as a bright and charming political partner who fought valiantly against breast cancer, “Game Change” portrays her as a churlish and sometimes vindictive alternative.

This Elizabeth is a back-room player who browbeats campaign aides and treats her husband dismissively. (She scoffs, the authors recount, when someone suggests John Edwards actually read a book.)

The book paints a particularly hideous scene on the morning in the fall of 2008 after the Enquirer reported Edwards’ affair -- the political couple’s trip to the airport devolving into a screaming, sobbing confrontation. Elizabeth reportedly ripped off her blouse and exposed herself, shouting “Look at me!”

Many will argue these are prurient details, but they make for a fascinating counterpoint to the conventional portrait of the Edwardses. Knowing that her husband had cheated on her -- just months after her cancer returned and been deemed incurable -- why did she insist Edwards continue his push for the Oval Office?

Campaign staffers would wonder at the damage Edwards would have done to the Democratic Party if he had secured the Democratic nomination, only to have the adultery exposed belatedly, paving the way for a Republican to win the White House.

“The worst part of it is that they did it together,” one former Edwards staffer told me this week. “She let the campaign go ahead, encouraged it. She really is a co-conspirator in the worst way.”

Veteran North Carolina political columnist Rob Christensen -- who has had a friendly relationship with Elizabeth, covering the family for years for the Raleigh News & Observer -- said the damage of the continuing Edwards campaign could have gone beyond party.

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“Just think if they had been successful,” he said in an interview. “We could have had another Monica Lewinsky figure dominate another Democratic presidency.”

The 448-page campaign book has gained more acclaim in recent days for exposing Sen. Harry Reid’s way of talking about Barack Obama and race. In the long run, I think the book will be better remembered for exposing Sarah Palin’s almost criminal ignorance about the world and the Edwards’ mutual destruction society.

The full squalor and significance of the Edwards story has taken a long, long time to gain traction in the mainstream media. The Los Angeles Times ran a two-paragraph brief of Edwards’ denial of the affair when the Enquirer broke the story in October 2007.

That’s two graphs more than most papers ran. The conservative Washington Times ran the item alleging an affair at the end of a string of six briefs. When Ann Coulter tried to talk up the Edwards adultery on MSNBC, conservative host Tucker Carlson changed the subject.

A lot of the mainstream media’s distaste for the story doubtless stems from their disdain for the Enquirer. Big papers like to recall when the tabloid got it wrong (for instance, buying the concocted suggestion that Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping might be related to a “gay-sex ring”) instead of when it got it right (revealing that Hillary Clinton’s brother got $400,000 for helping win a presidential pardon for a convicted businessman).

Many other factors put a damper on the story:

* A genuine admiration for Elizabeth made it impossible for many reporters to believe her husband could be that stupid and unfeeling, particularly after the recurrence of her cancer.

* Many Edwards campaign operatives served as master story killers, vehemently repeating their boss’ attacks on “tabloid trash” because they really believed he had done nothing wrong. They didn’t have to spin.

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* Reporters recalled seeing and hearing signs of stress in the marriage (One told me this week she heard staffers call Elizabeth “the terrorist”) but those were easily written off as the product of a struggling campaign and, especially, the strain of coping with her fatal cancer.

More than one commentator would suggest the media cut Edwards a break because they shared his liberal views. But it’s hard to square that argument with the media’s zestful pursuit of infidelity by Democrats like Bill Clinton and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Editors and producers lost most of the inclination they had to pursue the Edwards scandal once he lost the Iowa caucuses -- where victory had been seen as his only logical path to the Democratic nomination.

But the Enquirer would not let the story go away. Unburdened with the responsibilities of the mainstream press (Just what would Mike Huckabee do on healthcare?), it made sense to put a surveillance team on Edwards.

In July 2008, it caught the defeated, deflated candidate at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where he arranged a secret meeting with his erstwhile mistress and their alleged love baby.

The sordid new details will not change the course of the nation, but the account of how one of our most promising political couples became one of the most tarnished makes irresistible reading.

A couple of staffers told me this week how angered they had been when they finally realized the affair was real and disillusioned, also that Elizabeth had not done more to force her husband out of the race.

Still, they worried that the book’s portrait of an endlessly amoral candidate and his manipulative wife did another kind of violence to the truth.

“I was alone with him many times, eating dinner, just the two of us, when he talked about the poor, about making their lives better,” said one of the young workers. “I will always believe that was real.”

Another more senior operative agreed that the lessons of the Edwards Affair are not simple.

“It’s dispiriting,” he said, “but people from that campaign are resilient. They’re still hopeful about American politics. Fortunately, you don’t have to put all your belief in John Edwards.”

james.rainey@latimes.com


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