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From John Edwards, lessons on celebrity and politics

John Edwards answers a student's question after speaking at Brown University last March.
John Edwards answers a student's question after speaking at Brown University last March. (Elise Amendola/associated Press)
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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some years ago, I was having lunch with John McCain in the Senate dining room when a new senator stopped by to say hello. He was John Edwards. His smile was capacious. He exuded happiness. He was articulate and friendly, and when he left, he got a behind-his-back endorsement from McCain: Keep your eye on him, McCain counseled. And so I did.

I followed up by meeting with both John and Elizabeth Edwards at their home. She served sandwiches, as I recall, and then sat down to join us for one of those heavy policy discussions that mask formidable ambition. This was an impressive couple. Washington hummed. The Edwardses could go all the way.

Now all that promise is ashes, a political career consumed by what is usually called a sex scandal. Sex there was -- a confessed extramarital affair that produced a child and that was punctuated by bravura lying on Edwards's part. The story has been both appalling and titillating, but the tabloid nature of it should not obscure its larger lesson: John Edwards could have become president.

Within six years of being elected to the Senate and with no previous political experience, Edwards was the vice presidential nominee. He was on the ticket with John Kerry, who lost, it's true, but he was still on the ticket. As Spiro Agnew or, for that matter, Eliot Spitzer proved, in politics nothing is certain.

I have been particularly harsh on McCain for his irresponsible choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. I withdraw none of it; the better we got to know Palin, the more egregious a choice she became -- astonishingly unprepared and unsuited for the presidency. She proves, if anything, that McCain was, too.

But what, then, can we make of Kerry's choice of Edwards? It is not quite in the Palin category, since Edwards had been in the Senate for one term and had made a career for himself as a stunningly successful trial attorney. Still, not only did he lack legislative achievement, but, in retrospect, it's clear that little was known about him. He dazzled as a political matinee idol -- a profile, a speech, a mirage of a marriage.

The out-of-nowhere rise of Palin and Edwards in less than a decade is warning enough that something is wrong. I will also throw Barack Obama into the mix, not because I know something nefarious about him but because I realize more and more that I know so little about him.

When, for instance, the call goes out to let Obama be Obama, I'm not sure what that is. For the moment, it's a tendentious populism, but the sound of it is tinny and inauthentic, a campaign tactic, nothing more. When, however, we were asked to "let Reagan be Reagan," we could be certain it was a call for a hard-right turn. Ronald Reagan had devoted many years to the conservative cause. Obama, in contrast, was in the Illinois Senate just six years ago.

It is characteristic of our times that the moment Scott Brown won the special election for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat, he was asked about presidential ambitions. He had the good sense to demur, but surely when his head hits the pillow at night he hears a lullabyish "Hail to the Chief." If Obama could go from Springfield to Washington in a flash, if Palin could go from Juneau to her own campaign plane, if Edwards could go from courtroom to the vice presidential nomination in a wink, why not Brown? Never mind that we know next to nothing about him.

Time matters. It is slow (unless you are old) and tedious, but it is truth measured in increments of 60. My early impressions of Edwards faded to disillusion as his colleagues and friends described him as oddly incurious, averse to homework, often unprepared. When he launched his second presidential campaign, we met again -- and I was dumbfounded by what he did not seem to know about poverty, his proclaimed field of expertise. The man was mostly smile.

We have substituted the camera -- fame, celebrity -- for both achievement and the studied judgment of colleagues. The political machine, the organization, even the parties themselves are gone, severely atrophied or discredited as (ugh) mainstream. They once served as filters, admission committees, but they have been replaced by a sham familiarity -- fame at its most beguiling and dangerous. This was John Edwards. He's not a scandal. He's a lesson.

cohenr@washpost.com


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