My personal John Edwards trial: how he fooled me, and what I learned

About three weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, my wife, Meryl Gordon, and I had an off-the-record dinner with John and Elizabeth Edwards at the Washington restaurant Olives. The dinner was at the blurry intersection of Washington life—ostensibly social (Meryl had bonded with Elizabeth after writing an Elle magazine profile of her husband in 2001) but at its core professional (I was a columnist for USA Today and Edwards had White House dreams). Everyone was in a shell-shocked daze after the terrorist attacks, but my only clear memory of that dinner was Edwards’ palpable dislike for John Kerry, an obvious rival for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

That was the beginning of a political-journalistic courtship that now makes me cringe. With Edwards on trial in North Carolina on charges of violating federal campaign-finance laws—after the disgrace of being caught with a mistress and denying being the father of her baby—I wish I had befriended a comparatively more honorable political figure like Eliot Spitzer or Mark Sanford.

Back during those early, seemingly innocent days, there were a few more four-person dinners and an afternoon visit or two to the house that Edwards rented in Washington. As a reporter, I followed Edwards on one of his first forays into New Hampshire in mid-2002. I can still see Edwards, with Elizabeth at his side, sitting in a hotel bar in Portsmouth at the end of that long campaign day, glassy-eyed from the adulation, too pumped up with the adrenaline rush of politics for ordinary conversation. Those fledgling moments in New Hampshire chronicling the ambitious first-term North Carolina senator helped inspire me to write a book on the 2004 Democratic race in which Edwards (and, of course, Elizabeth) played central roles.

In hindsight, I feel like the jaded city slicker, bristling with self-confidence that he can never be fooled, who ends up hoodwinked by the smiling rural Southern confidence man. Please understand: I did not deliberately put a thumb on the scale when I wrote about Edwards. It was more that I was convinced by Edwards’ sincerity when he talked passionately about poverty and the Two Americas. And I especially believed (because I spent so much time with Elizabeth) the romantic myth of the Edwards marriage.

Many Edwards insiders from the 2004 campaign say the vice presidential nomination (bestowed by, yes, John Kerry) changed him. The entourage, the plane, the Secret Service detail and the frenzy of a fall campaign all supposedly fueled Edwards’ self-importance and sense of entitlement. But as I struggle to understand my own entanglement with a scandal-scarred presidential contender, I wonder if this arbitrary division between pre-veep Edwards and post-veep Edwards is too glib.

The danger signs and character flaws were always there, and I failed to notice them. I was certainly not alone in my blindness. David Axelrod, for example, was Edwards’ first media consultant during the 2004 primary campaign. Even after Axelrod drifted away to concentrate on a long-shot Senate race for a candidate named Barack Obama in Illinois, he returned for Edwards’ last stand in the Wisconsin primary. I recall running into Axelrod in the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee on primary day and hearing him say of Edwards, “He’ll be president someday.”

The elixir of power can cloud the vision of campaign aides and political reporters alike. When the stakes are as high as the presidency, the wish to believe often becomes irresistible. In Edwards’ case, it was all too easy to go from listening to his boast that he was “the son of a mill worker” and his passionate delivery of a staff-written speech about the disadvantaged to convincing yourself that the North Carolina senator was going to be the greatest anti-poverty warrior since Bobby Kennedy. After too many years of dealing with the reverberations from the “Clinton marriage” (how I hated typing those words), it was so refreshing to see the seemingly solid unit of John and Elizabeth Edwards (who laughingly referred to herself as the “un-Barbie”).

Aside from Edwards, the presidential contender in recent years whom I thought I knew the best was John McCain. I was there for his marathon rolling press conferences on his campaign bus during the 2000 primaries. Over the years, I had maybe a dozen private breakfasts and lunches with him in the Senate Dining Room. This was not intimacy, but it was a different vision than merely seeing a candidate reading a speech from a teleprompter at a rally.

And guess what? From the moment that McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate until long after the 2008 election, I did not recognize a single thing about the Arizona senator whom I thought I knew well. All those hours of talking—just the two of us—in the Senate Dining Room led to only fleeting bits of insight about McCain. As with Edwards, my certainty that my theories about McCain were true prevented me from seeing the abundant contrary evidence.

So what lessons for the 2012 campaign have I derived from my embarrassing prior failures of political perception? (By the way, I am hoping to interest Hollywood in a major feature film—is George Clooney available?—about all the political stories that I have gotten right over the years.)

Perhaps the biggest truth is that anyone who reaches the upper ranks of American politics is a user, capable of feigning intimacy when what the candidate really wants is a large check or an endorsement or a flattering profile. That may be especially true of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—both self-contained men whose few real friendships seemingly predate their involvement in big-time politics. What that means for political reporters and voters is that relatively few people know either Obama or Romney well—and even fewer are privy to what they are really thinking.

Barack and Michelle Obama—along with Mitt and Ann Romney—have always advertised their marriages as a kind of political endorsement. In a sense, both men benefit from the common voter feeling, “If she loves him and has raised a family with him, then that’s good enough for me.” But without in any way casting aspersions on either the Obama or the Romney marriages, it is worth remembering how hard it is for any outsider to understand the essence of any marriage. Whether it was John and Elizabeth Edwards, Bill and Hillary Clinton, John and Jackie Kennedy or Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, political history has been filled with marriages that were, in reality, far different than the gauzy imagery of the campaign trail.

In the end, what covering nine presidential campaigns has taught me is perpetual skepticism. With John Edwards, I learned it the hard way. The campaigns, the political true believers, the nearly $1 billion ad budgets and the TV spokesmen are all trying to sell voters on a product. But presidential candidates—regardless of party or ideology—are always flawed vessels for the hopes of their supporters. They are human beings (more ego-driven than most) with their own secrets and private insecurities.

Probing beneath the public masks of presidential candidates can be a frustrating exercise. But it remains our only defense against charlatans in the Oval Office. My Edwards and McCain miscalculations were, in part, inspirations for this series of Yahoo News columns—for the idea of looking at presidential candidates solely from the perspective of what will matter in 2013 after the winner places his left hand on the Bible and swears “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Character matters more than position papers in choosing a president. And if you look carefully enough and respect the complexity of the evidence, it is best glimpsed from the middle distance.

That is John Edwards’ lasting legacy to me. Never again will I get so close to the blinding sun of potential political power, and never again will I believe that I hold the full truth about anyone seeking the presidency.