Reviewers have concluded that John Kerry’s newly released autobiography, Every Day Is Extra, “should come bundled with toothpicks, so readers can use them to prop up their eyelids” and that it reveals “what John Kerry is most fond of . . . is John Kerry.” But they’ve have so far chosen not to spotlight one of the more intriguing and self-critical moments in the book, passages that amount to an admission that he botched one of the biggest political decisions of his career.
Remember John Edwards? The former North Carolina senator whom roughly 59 million Americans voted to put a heartbeat away from the presidency in 2004?
Edwards’s political career careened off the road in 2007 when the National Enquirer reported about an adulterous affair between Edwards and former campaign worker Rielle Hunter. For about a year Edwards denied the affair; then he admitted an affair but denied having a child with her; and in 2010 he admitted his paternity. In 2012, Edwards’s trial over an alleged violation of campaign-contribution laws in the effort to hide the affair and child ended in a mistrial.
John Edwards looks a lot different today from how he did in the early years of the Bush administration. Back then, Edwards was a young trial lawyer out of a John Grisham novel and a southerner when the South was trending heavily towards the GOP. In 2000, People magazine called him the country’s “sexiest politician.” Democratic insiders compared him to a young Bill Clinton, and now we know that comparison was far more accurate than many intended.
Kerry spends quite a few pages on his running-mate decision from 2004. He writes that “we had been approached by one of the people closest to John McCain. He suggested that John might be open to joining me.” Kerry speculates that picking McCain would have put Arizona and Colorado in play, and describes “sitting together a couple of times one-on-one.” But ultimately, McCain wasn’t interested in running on the Democratic ticket.
Kerry writes that the list narrowed down to Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt (“many have suggested he could have made the difference in Ohio and they may well have been right”), Florida senator Bob Graham (“chaired the Intelligence Committee, and brought southern credentials to the table as well as a commonsense approach to public life”), and Edwards.
Edwards’s decision to have a reckless affair with Hunter was years away in 2004, but Kerry writes that before his selection, some of his colleagues warned him that something wasn’t quite right with the North Carolina senator:
John had both fans and detractors in the Senate. Ted Kennedy had worked with him on health care and thought he was gifted. Something about Edwards reminded him of his brother Bobby. Other senators, though, warned me there was something about John that didn’t quite add up. They thought he was too ambitious, in too much of a hurry, and several expressed concerns that he couldn’t’ be counted on to be a team player under the heat of governing . . .
. . . Something made me uncertain whether I could count on him for an eight-year partnership which in turn would set him up for a presidency of his own. I think in an effort to reassure me, John recounted a story he told me that he hadn’t shared with anyone before. It was the story of [his son] Wade’s death and that moment alone with his body. Something unsettled me. It seemed too familiar. It was the exact same memory he had shared four years before at dinner.
Kerry concluded that while it was odd Edwards insisted he had never told anyone the story before, forgetting he had told Kerry years before, he couldn’t judge Edwards for the way he grieved or chose to discuss the death of his son. He offered him the vice-presidential slot.
We stop hearing anything good about John Edwards after that. Kerry spends nearly an entire chapter denouncing the Swift Boat Vets for Truth ads, but recalls that someone on the campaign didn’t seem to think they were such a serious problem.
People who weren’t there were polluting the airwaves with lies, trying to undermine the service of every one of us who was. I was seething. I called in my campaign manager. She believed that the advertising buy was minimal, but we were tracking it. John Edwards said the Republicans were just trying to get us to “chase a rabbit.”
A page later:
We talked about sending John Edwards out to defend me, but somehow it seemed that the speech would be diluted by the vice presidential candidate himself and delivered without passion or conviction. My team started to ask whether Edwards was capable of carrying only a positive message.
Kerry acidly notes that “Edwards promised to deliver his home state.” Bush won North Carolina by 12.4 percentage points, about the same margin as four years earlier. But Kerry’s frustration really came to the surface the night of the vice-presidential debate.
I called John Edwards to wish him luck; he was debating Vice President Cheney that night, and we were hopeful that the momentum from the first debate would keep going after what I expected would be a strong performance from John. . . . But when I caught him on the phone, he sounded uneasy.
“John, what do you do about your nerves on days like these?” he asked.
I was startled. Of all the people who seemed ready for his close-up, it was Edwards.
Kerry describes advisers Bob Shrum and Bob Barnett telling him that Edwards would be fine, but in Every Day Is Extra, Kerry describes himself as increasingly convinced that he had picked a lemon:
I’d been assured he’d be tough, loyal and hardworking. But he’d watered down the talking points defending me against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. I’d been promised he’d be a team player. But there was a growing buzz of gossip that he was rejecting speech input from headquarters and gravitating back to the stump speech he’d delivered in the primaries back when he was a candidate. I’d been promised he’d be tough. But he’d been resistant to take on Bush a frontal way, and now I’d heard that he didn’t take debate prep seriously enough. It worried me. . . . I knew I hadn’t seen the Mr. October I’d been promised.
Edwards pretty much disappears from the book after that. After the loss, Kerry describes Edwards as offering dishonest assessments of what went wrong: “A story appeared in which it was revealed that John Edwards regretted that the campaign didn’t allow him to talk more about his personal values. Funny, I had never heard John say that in the campaign.”
Kerry writes the bare minimum about Edwards’s ill-fated 2008 campaign: “John Edwards was in the race, and he was betting the farm on Iowa. While we had not spoken in months, and no one expected me to be with Edwards, I didn’t want my checkered history with John to be seen as the reason I was endorsing someone else.” Kerry endorsed Obama before the South Carolina primary — after Edwards had finished a distant second in Iowa and third in what had already effectively become a two-person race in New Hampshire.
The political world is rarely kind to the vice-presidential candidate on the losing ticket. Today you rarely hear Democrats asking, “What does Tim Kaine think?” Paul Ryan became speaker of the House and got his tax cuts passed, but he’s ending his career in Congress surprisingly early in his life. Sarah Palin became a superstar pundit but never took another role in government after resigning as governor. Joe Lieberman continued in the Senate, but lost a primary, ended his career as a pariah to his party, and became a McCain-campaign surrogate in 2008. Jack Kemp faded from the scene after 1996, and Dan Quayle never ran for office again.
But Edwards probably stands out as the worst vice-presidential selection in modern history. The lone general-election victory of Edwards’s career came against 70-year-old Lauch Faircloth in a Democratic wave year. His Senate record was unremarkable, and only two of his bills were ever enacted into law; one renamed a post office. His critics had him pegged from the beginning: an empty suit driven by slick speeches and photogenic charisma. His Democratic allies noticed it, too. In his memoirs, longtime Democratic strategist David Axelrod wrote of his former client, “His one-on-one interactions with people were plastic, and out of the public eye, his interest in the substance of issues was thin. He wanted only as much information as he needed to glide by — and he was bright and glib enough to glide a long way.”
Edwards was shameless enough to pitch himself to both the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns as a potential running mate while hiding his child with Hunter. Once the façade crumbled, there was nothing left; he will be remembered as a catastrophe dodged by the Democratic party. After the revelation that he cheated on his wife while she was fighting cancer, a Democratic polling firm revealed that Edwards was“the most unpopular person it had ever polled.”
Kerry himself was left finding his former running mate as an unreliable, self-absorbed, dishonest opportunist who added almost nothing to the campaign.
Of course, all of that also says a great deal about the judgment of the man who picked him.