Lost Souls of the 2008 Presidential Campaign

I at least want to scan some of the new books offering “behind-the-scenes” accounts of the 2008 presidential campaign, what was probably one of the most fascinating campaigns in American history. “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, looks to be well-written and well-reported, at least based on the excerpt in New York magazine and the review in The New York Times.

Update: A reader and several sources question the accuracy of “Game Change.” See below.

Called “St. Elizabeth and the Ego Monster,” the excerpt pieces together, for the first time in print, what aides to the Edwards’ were thinking and observing, including “a wife (Elizabeth Edwards) whose virtuous image was a mirage.” Edwards’s story is “lastingly resonant: an archetypal political tragedy in which the very same qualities that fuel any presidential bid—ego, hubris, vanity, neediness, a kind of delusion—became all-consuming and self-destructive. And in which the gap between public façade and private reality simply grew too vast to bridge.”

Some of Game Change is no doubt sour grapes from former staffers who invested their lives in losing candidates, and may be speculative and less than accurate, but the excerpts have the ring of truth.

As someone who had several positive encounters with Elizabeth, and a skeptical encounter with John Edwards, it’s sad to see this story. She clearly had boundary issues. She didn’t know where she began and ended, where John’s campaigns and career and obligations to his family and to his North Carolina constituents began and ended. What business did she have as the candidate’s wife ordering staff around with 1 AM emails? None. Since she was not part of the official structure of the campaign, she was unaccountable. One can certainly understand how her interference drove staff nuts.

She “over-shared” with strangers, offered an illusion of intimacy that brought new people into the campaign but ultimately proved dysfunctional. Quite humanly, she publicly portrayed her marriage as the way she wished it to be, not as it was.

Affairs don’t usually happen in a vacuum, and not just from yielding to lust. They frequently result from a lack of intimacy in marriage — political marriages are notorious for a lack of intimacy — and from important emotions neglected or repressed or dealt with passive-aggressively for months or years. Game Change reveals problems in the McCain marriage, and the Clinton marriage (as if anyone needed more evidence that the Clintons’ marriage is strange but nevertheless enduring).

I’m a believer in marriage and family systems, and relationship systems at work. Frenetically busy political campaigns, many of them start-ups, where people share political passion, are ripe for creating dysfunctional relationship systems; ripe for aides, candidates and spouses to lose their best selves, their best values, and to lose connections with the people in their life who matter most. Obviously that’s what happened to John Edwards. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

What makes the story of the Edwards so compelling is the contrast between public image and private reality. In the excerpt from Game Change, watching the destruction of a marriage and a meteoric career is compelling reading. It’s kind of like watching a car crash.

But the delight that some people take in the story — “a fraud and a huckster and a pretty-boy shyster exposed” — should not obscure the fact that many if not most people regardless of political party or ideology are vulnerable to one emotional or moral deficiency or another. Presidential politics, for nearly all who run, is an all-encompassing high-wire act in which it is no doubt difficult to keep one’s head fully together.

Edwards was hardly alone in his narcissism and hubris. You have to have a lot of it to run for president. But in the excerpt from Game Change, the Edwards come off not too differently from another notorious North Carolina couple, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

After my own positive impressions of Elizabeth Edwards, I don’t buy the harsh portrayal as the whole story. I prefer former aide Jennifer Palmieri’s account of the warm and friendly survivor, “utterly without pretense” who scoffs at any notion that she is “Saint Elizabeth.”

“Winkem” wrote in the comments on the New York site:

John Edwards let himself believe he was a super star. I’ve seen this happen to people I know. They do very well at something and become very successful. They become a “star” in their small galaxy. Soon they are surrounded by people who are always telling them how brilliant their every idea is. After awhile the star begins to believe that EVERY idea they have IS a great idea. (Hey, I should have a mistress travel with me on the campaign trail!) They quit challenging their own thought process and stop questioning themselves because it has become obvious that if it comes out of their head it MUST be a good thing. And the star usually is smart enough to rationalize a lot of bad behavior.

Each individual I saw go from reasonable, successful person to arrogant super star did trip themselves up and had a hard fall. Some of them went back to being their better selves.

Having to fall as far as Edwards did and in the national spotlight must be awful. And, of course, Elizabeth had a role in all this. I do love her book “Saving Graces”. I hate that they did this to themselves and to their family.

One thing Game Change does do for sure: of all the candidates in the field, Barack Obama was, certainly in comparison, the best man for the moment.

Update: The authors of Game Change state that they promised all of their sources complete anonymity. Ambinder questions the vagueness of the ground rules, and how Senator Reid’s staff feels burned by the “no Negro dialect” quote regarding Obama attributed to him. As a journalist I know that this lack of accountability can lead to sloppiness or embellishment by either the sources or the writers. A reader writes:

“It makes for “interesting reading” but low credibility. Readers who don’t know who supplied them with the alleged information or misinformation have no means of 1) evaluating the credibility of the source, or 2) going to the sources for confirmation or denial of the alleged information.

“Jim – and you never interviewed me for a paper! – but my experiences with newspaper interviewers almost invariably included serious misquotes, a circumstance that in time led me to avoid interviews unless I was given the opportunity to review what was written for accuracy. I would think most savvy readers willl take this book with a pitcher of salt.”

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