The Politician

An Insider’s Account of John Edwards’s Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down

by Andrew Young

Thomas Dunne, 320 pp., $24.99

I never want to hear again how scary it was that Sarah Palin almost became vice president.

Now that I’ve read Andrew Young’s exposé, The Politician, I can only sigh in relief that Edwards’s presidential bid tanked in 2008. Likewise the Democratic ticket after John Kerry drafted him in 2004. Didn’t Kerry understand that his shallow running mate eschewed briefing books, was preoccupied with his looks, and overly ambitious yet woefully inexperienced? Sure, Edwards was good-looking and could deliver a peppy speech, but he was also narcissistic, unprepared for the White House, and his worldview was distorted by supporters who worshipped him with cult-like devotion.

Ah, but you see, Kerry was so desperate to win the general election that he stooped to picking a man whom he had to know was constitutionally unsuited to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

I picked up The Politician because I wanted the answer to two questions. First, could it be true, as John Heilemann and Mark Halperin assert in Game Change, that Edwards’s staff considered him “sorta asexual,” and that they were shocked to discover that he would get caught cheating on Elizabeth Edwards? Not according to Young, who writes that he had seen Edwards flirt inappropriately, pocket notes from groupies at events, and heard rumors about “extramarital affairs”—which he chose not to believe. Second, how did Edwards get Young, a law school graduate, to claim to be the father of the baby his mistress Rielle Hunter was carrying? The Politician rolls out the craven decisions this son of a politically connected preacher made to become indispensable to Edwards.

At every chance, I volunteered to do more, so when everyone else turned down the job of driving the senator when he came to town—picking him up at the airport, ferrying him around the state, bringing him back to the airport—I grabbed it.

As the “body man” for Edwards, “I didn’t talk unless he wanted to talk, and I learned to say, ‘Yes, sir’ to every request he ever made. ‘No’ wasn’t in my vocabulary.” In time, Young became the man Elizabeth Edwards called to oversee housing repairs, to help with the Christmas shopping, register the Edwardses to vote. He even allowed Edwards to use his name to register for extensive dental work and plastic surgery to remove a mole from his upper lip.

As Young began to cross ethical lines, he told himself that the demeaning tasks he was called upon to perform would allow him to be a part of history, as he was convinced that someday John Edwards would be president and Andrew Young would be serving by his side.

Yet by Young’s own account, Edwards clearly lacked the gravitas one would hope for in a president: He notoriously ignored the briefing books staffers labored to produce, and he liked to “watch stupid movies like Tommy Boy.” Edwards decided to enter politics not simply because of the tragic death of his son Wade, but after watching The American President starring Michael Douglas.

Young’s Edwards was never happy as a senator. He burned through five chiefs of staff in six years. Having been elected to the Senate in 1998 he felt no responsibility to master the job before lobbying to become Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. In courting Kerry, Edwards said he would tell the Yankee senator a story that no one knew—about embracing Wade’s body at the medical examiner’s office. “Kerry was stunned and put off because Edwards had actually shared the same tale with him more than once.”

Mrs. Edwards debuts as a loving wife and mother, as well as shrewd political adviser with a natural’s touch for appealing to voters. She once promised to chauffeur a woman who had been Wade’s friend to truck-driving class. (Young ended up doing the driving.) After Young supervised Edwards’s Senate staffers, who were moving possessions Elizabeth Edwards didn’t trust to a moving company, Young writes, “Instead of thanks, I received a grilling about buying beer and pizza for the volunteers who met me to unload.” Her behavior devolved after she answered a ringing cell phone left in her husband’s luggage, only to hear how much Rielle Hunter missed her husband.

By this time, Young later realized, he no longer saw the Edwardses “clearly. In fact, I was willing to imagine they had positive qualities they didn’t actually possess and overlook their flaws and mistakes, because I needed them to succeed.” He was hooked. Over-mortgaged and seduced by the access to fame he had acquired—flying in private jets and hanging out with Hootie and the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band, chit-chatting with Ted Kennedy—by the time Edwards asked Young to say he was Quinn Hunter’s father he had invested too much in Edwards to watch him fail.

As one who saw Edwards as a smarmy lightweight, I nonetheless was drawn in by Young’s valet’s eye view of this man who would be president. Once, Young lent Edwards his car; the senator backed it into another car and left a dent in Young’s new Chevrolet Suburban without telling him, or offering to pay for the damage. The dent became “a reminder of John Edwards’s sense of entitlement,” Andrew Young’s vehicular proof that no man is a hero to his valet.

But a man can be a hero to someone else’s valet. Of Erskine Bowles, Young writes, “I admired his intelligence and honesty and the fact that he refused to let me help him bring his luggage and golf clubs inside.” Rielle Hunter fares less well in Young’s judgment, especially in light of her shabby treatment after she moved in with Young, his wife Cheri, and their three children, and the entourage embarked on a surreal months-long odyssey from private jet to luxury hotel to Aspen superhome in order to bolster a charade that no one but Elizabeth Edwards believed. If she believed. Young never does explain exactly when he began saving text messages, voicemail, and (we now know) the infamous sex tape, although in their last confrontation, Young told Edwards that he had begun keeping notes “almost every day since I began working for him.”

Did Young begin thinking he was drafting a diary for history, or as critics suggest, fodder for a book deal?

Can readers trust a man who, in attesting to be the father of Rielle Hunter’s baby, is a known liar? Can readers trust a man ready to do anything to help put such an unworthy character into the White House? Well, having read other accounts, and trusting in Young’s ample documentation—not to mention his publisher’s fear of the tort system—I found this account believable, and wrenching. Of course, the Edwardses are hardly credible—what with John Edwards denying any extramarital affair, then admitting the affair but denying paternity, then admitting paternity—but the irony is that Young forfeited his credibility for a ruse that no one in politics took seriously.

“What happened to loyalty?” a CNN talking head recently asked as she repeated the standard refrain about Andrew Young. To read The Politician is to understand that, after sacrificing his time, reputation, and his very employability, Andrew Young owes John and Elizabeth Edwards nothing.

Debra J. Saunders writes a syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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