Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reading "The Politician", by Andrew Young

Many years ago a cynical senior colleague, Professor Famous, noting with displeasure several scholarly books lying open or bookmarked on my chaotic desk, gave me the following advice. “There are two kinds of professors. Those who read books, and those who write books. The ones who write books are the ones who get ahead.” Though in my scholarly career I persevered in my perversity of trying to chew gum and walk at the same time, I have without realizing it fallen into Prof. Famous’s pattern when it comes to blogging. I do read one blog religiously. The inspirer of my blog was my number-one son Richard and I continue to follow his bizarrely named but invariably rewarding “Brooklynite on the Ice” (

There are two important Richard Flemings in my life, but only one of them is my son.

Rich is a man of parts—writer, world-traveler, craftsman, humanitarian, linguist, disk jockey, “chronic relaxationist”, recording engineer. If only he would master the épée and the fourth declension I could call him a Renaissance man. One of several features of antarcticiana I propose to emulate is the free-lance book review. Every so often Rich mounts a post entitled “Reading [Whatever Engaging Book He’s Been Reading].” Since he reads a lot of interesting books, this is one of his blog’s best features.

I rarely buy a current best seller, even at 40% discount, but I had been fascinated by the hype surrounding this one and trundled out to Barnes and Noble. Unfortunately “Reading The Politician, by Andrew Young” will concern a lousy book about really lousy people; but in a sense the lousiness is the whole point. You probably already know that The Politician is a “tell-all” memoir, an exposé of the presidential candidacy of John Edwards, which crashed and burned in the pages of the National Enquirer, when reporters from that supermarket tabloid cornered him in the men’s room of a fancy Beverly Hills hotel where he had gone in secret to visit his New Age girlfriend and their recently arrived “love child”.

Let me face my first digression manfully by saying that this term (“love-child”) is ridiculous. All children are, or should be, love-children. The way you make babies is by making love. Now that nearly forty percent of all American babies are born to unwed mothers could we not usefully revive the technical term bastard? Being a bastard never impeded Don Juan of Austria. Do you really think a “love child” could have won the Battle of Lepanto? Leonardo da Vinci, love-child? Alexander Hamilton? Lawrence of Arabia, for Heaven’s sake?

Though the sexual stuff fuelled the story and the TV interviews, it is actually less sleazy than a good deal else in the “Edwards saga”—a book-jacket phrase coined by somebody who’s never read a saga, obviously. John Edwards was prepared to do anything, and I do mean anything, to become President of the United States; but volition is not the same thing as capacity, and he was incapable of exercising good taste in women or in fast-food restaurants, which appear to have been the two dynamos of his cupidity. The four hundred dollar haircuts, the five million dollar house (“Thorstein Veblen Hall”) are proclamations of entitlement rather than sheer vulgar iniquity. I began this book thinking that Edwards must be a contemporary version of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, a southern politician in whom there struggled some great and fascinating complexity, a tragic irresolution of ends and means, a noble moral vision mired in the bog of American political reality. But that was an insult to Willie Stark. It’s hard to give political hypocrisy a bad name, but John Edwards managed to do it.

John and Elizabeth Edwards are foul enough for a whole mini-series, but the really creepy people in this book are their enablers. I had never before heard of Fred Baron or Bunny Mellon. Had you? Fred Baron (now departed) was a super-rich Texas lawyer, the “King of Torts,” the Rainmaker’s Rainmaker. Mr. Baron thought it would be a very good thing for the world, beginning with the trial lawyers, if John Edwards (a kind of Subaltern or Cadet of Torts in his own right) were to become President. Or Vice-President. Or Attorney General. Whatever. To this end he was willing to make available his private jet, his Aspen mansion, and several hundreds of thousands of his superfluous dollars so that Rielle Hunter could disappear from the public view for a season while she had a baby. “Bunny” Mellon (Rachel Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon), the widow of my own benefactor Andrew Mellon, is a celebrity horticulturalist who is older than God and twice as rich. She was much smitten with John Edwards and thought it a pity that the press was hassling him about four hundred dollar haircuts and other political necessities. So she arranged to supply him, off the campaign books, several more hundreds of thousands of dollars, no questions asked, and certainly none answered. A good deal of this went to assuage Ms. Hunter’s difficult accouchement.

John Edwards (Il Penseroso) Fred Baron (L'Allegro)

To your worries about the undue political influence of corporations you might now add some concern about the undue influence of filthy rich individual meddlers and entrepreneurs. One has to assume they exist, in actuality or in potential, behind all major candidates. Then there are the true apparatchiks, the “political strategists” and professional “campaign workers.” I was interested to learn, for example, that David Alexrod, the unelected expropriator of my granddaughters’ lunch money, is a retread from the Edwards campaign.

But Creep in Chief is the author, Andrew Young himself. Even for a North Carolina lawyer he exhibited a breathtaking moral opacity. Never letting his eye stray from the main chance—the possibility of becoming a scullion in the household of Pharaoh on Pennsylvania Avenue--he served John and Elizabeth Edwards with a mind-boggling constancy. He was just a guy who couldn’t say “no”. Much of his demeaning vassalage was exercised in the presence of his wife and young children. He became famous for agreeing to claim paternity of the “love child”; but this was one of the nobler and more interesting of his tasks. The stuff that makes the reader cringe is the lickspittle domestic servility, the fetching of sandwiches from Arby’s or trying to score a Play Station at Walmart’s.

Young is forthright in stating his motives for writing the book. They include the obvious. He needs the money, since he is now “unemployable”. Edwards promised him the moon. If the moon weren’t available, he’d have to be content with a mere constellation—the executive directorship, for life, of a philanthropic foundation to be bankrolled by Bunny Mellon. By the end of it all his best offer was a positive letter of recommendation!

As usual Shakespeare said it best, in some famous lines from King Henry VIII. Old Cardinal Wolsey, after a hundred fetch-and-carry missions to his own Renaissance Arby’s, was shafted by the king. Things were rather more serious in those days, as they turned you over to the tender mercies of the headsman rather than those of the paparazzi. But Wolsey got it:

Had I but served my God with half the zeal

I served my king; he would not in mine age

Have left me naked to mine enemies.

Nor, of course, encouraged him to write a “tell-all” memoir.