John Edwards’ Forgotten Sin

Relieved as he must be at his recent acquittal and mistrial on federal campaign finance charges, John Edwards surely knows that his major party political career will never be revived. This is mostly his fault. Edwards sunk his reputation with clueless, out-of-control narcissism that led him into a reckless affair with Rielle Hunter, a bizarre astrology-addicted camp-follower – this as his widely admired wife struggled with terminal cancer and he ran for the presidential nomination. The elaborate failed operation (involving large payments from a rich benefactor that sparked the Justice Department’s flawed case against Edwards) to cover the illicit relationship was worse than the affair itself. To say that Edwards lacked judgment is an understatement.


For all any of us know, Edwards has subsequently undergone a moral and spiritual transformation. It is possible that he has confronted and worked through the demons that led him down a destructive path from late 2006 through early 2008. Except for the most malignant narcissists and sociopaths, people can confront and work through what led them to act without proper moral and personal restraint and discrimination.


Even if that has occurred (which seems unlikely), however, the dominant U.S. political culture is unlikely to forgive and forget. Edwards committed not one but three sins. The first was extramarital sex, a problem that Bill Clinton was able to overcome more than once. The second was the cover up.


Against “Singing Kumbaya”


These are the sins remembered today. But Edwards did something else quite a bit more admirable to create his own exile in 2007 and 2008. His third and forgotten sin was to run with combative passion and genuine eloquence on the issue of ending poverty and advancing economic justice and the labor movement against the control of Washington and both dominant political parties by the wealthy financial and corporate Few. I doubt I’m the only left political junkie who recalls that the legendary corporation-battling progressive Ralph Nader endorsed “fighting  John” Edwards over the deeply conservative,[1] fake-progressive and vacuously neoliberal “Hope” charlatan Barack Obama on the MSNBC political talk show host Chris Mathews’ show “Hardball” in mid-December, 2007. When Mathews claimed that Nader had “excluded Obama from the progressive coalition,” Nader responded that “he’s excluded himself by the statements he’s made, unfortunately” – statements “which are extremely conciliatory to concentrated power and big business…The people of Iowa and New Hampshire,” Nader added, “have to ask themselves: who is going to fight for you.”  Explaining why he was endorsing Edwards in Iowa, Nader noted that “Edwards raises the question of the concentration of power and wealth and power in a few hands that are working against the majority of people” [2]


On the same day Nader spoke with Mathews, leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted that “there are large differences among the [Democratic] candidates in their beliefs about what it will take to turn a progressive agenda into reality…Anyone,” Krugman added, “who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.” [3] Krugman’s rhetoric mirrored that of his candidate at the time, Edwards, who had repeatedly referred to Obama’s message of conciliation with big business and the G.O.P. as “singing Kumbaya.” Edwards called the Illinois senator’s repeatedly stated desire to work with big corporations, Wall Street, and the Republicans as “a total fantasy.” Obama, Edwards said repeatedly, was selling the conservative illusion of progressive change without confrontation. “When you sit down at a big table to ‘negotiate’ with the Republicans and the big corporations,” Edwards said across Iowa and New Hampshire, “it doesn’t get you anywhere. They just eat everything at the table.”


Listen to what Edwards had to say during a Democratic Party candidates’ forum in Charleston, South Carolina in late July of 2007:

“How do we bring about big change? I think that's a fundamental threshold question. And the question is: Do you believe that compromise, triangulation will bring about big change? I don't. I think the people who are powerful in Washington — big insurance companies, big drug companies, big oil companies — they are not going to negotiate. They are not going to give away their power. The only way that they are going to give away their power is if we take it away from them ((APPLAUSE)…If you want real change, you need somebody who's taking these people on and beating them… To have a president that's going to — is going to fight for equality, fight for real change, big change, bold change, we're going to have to somebody — we can't trade our insiders for their insiders. That doesn't work. What we need is somebody who will take these people on, these big banks, these mortgage companies, big insurance companies, big drug companies.” [4]

Along with Edwards’ insistent focus on the problems of poverty and class (economic) inequality (I heard him refer more than once in Iowa to the disproportionate wealth and power of the “top 1 percent”) and his curious propensity for identifying “the labor movement” as the “greatest anti-poverty program in American history,” this sort of rhetoric helped explain why Edwards was widely shunned by corporate campaign investors and dismissed and ignored by the corporate media long before the Rielle Hunter story emerged. Forget the standard official marginalization of the progressive presidential candidacies of Nader, Cynthia McKinney, and Dennis Kucinich. Even Edwards, the mainstream Democratic Party’s Vice Presidential nominee just three years before, did not merit significant or favorable attention in the all powerful arenas of elite campaign finance and the mass media. Well before the Hunter revelations, his unusually powerful and substantive populist language had put him on the wrong and interrelated sides of intertwined corporate funding and corporate media powers that filter out presidential candidates deemed too hostile or potentially hostile to the policy and ideological imperatives of concentrated wealth.[5]

Did Edwards sincerely believe in the populist rhetoric of his primary campaign against Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom he correctly identified and denounced as “corporate Democrats”? I have no idea. His personal and past political behavior certainly suggested opportunism. He did not have the elementary progressive decency to join Kucinich in calling for single-payer health insurance. Still, he did campaign largely around and for the rapidly forgotten Employee Free Choice Act (which would have essentially re-legalized potent union organizing in this country). Campaigns are generally about little more than the words and imagery of narcissistic power-seekers and Edwards (for whatever reason – perhaps sincere commitment and/or perhaps a calculation that Hillary and Obama had already sucked up most of the centrist space and money) chose rhetoric that cost him the elite bourgeois support required for presidential “viability” under the United States plutocratic electoral regime. Political commentator Charles Pierce made some excellent points in an Esquire blog last March:

“John Edwards was the only Democratic presidential candidate since Jesse Jackson who went out of his way to talk about poverty in America. Not in an oblique way. Not as an afterthought after blathering for hours on the pressures on The Middle Class and how he wanted to unleash Small Business, The Engine Of The Economy — both of which, in purely political terms, meant discussing the not-inconsiderable economic perils of struggling white folks. Talking about poverty, and about poor people, meant talking a lot about black people, and that’s the kind of thing that Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council convinced a generation of ambitious Democratic politicians was a vote-killing extravagance that the party could no longer afford. I thought that it mattered that there was someone out there at least talking the talk on the big stage about how there are pockets of unforgivable hunger and want in this nation the existence of which should embarrass us all.” [6]


Light vs. Heat

If nothing else, crazy John Edwards deserves a little credit at least for having tried to buck corporate wealth in the primaries and for noting the necessity of an “epic fight” with corporate and financial power. He also deserves some acknowledgment for having called out the fake-progressive Obama as a conservative and corporate accommodator long before it became apparent to millions more that the nation’s first black president was all about corporate green and greed.

In a candidates’ debate in Des Moines, Edwards repeated his oft-stated line that only an “epic fight” with the rich and powerful could deliver livable wages, clean government, and meaningful healthcare reform. Obama responded with what the left author Mike Davis called “typical eloquent evasion.”  “We don’t need more heat,” Obama said: “we need more light.’[7]  

We saw soon enough who Dollar Obama’s bringers of “light” were – people like financial deregulation pioneer Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner of Goldman Sachs, FOX News-addicted Tea Partiers might mouth paranoid, neo-McCarthyite fantasies about the new president’s “radical leftism,” (the laughable Newt Gingrich’s openly ludicrous description of Obama), but serious investigators had little reason to doubt which class the new president served. “Our black president” (as progressive editor and commentator Matthew Rothschild mistakenly called Obama in October of 2010) has belonged to Wall Street and corporate America from the start. With its expansion of the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down parasitic financial institutions, its passage of a health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight, its undermining of global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its green-lighting of escalated strip mining and hazardous deepwater oil drilling and other offshore drilling projects its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies (recall the quickly sidetracked Employee Free Choice Act) its appointment of a Deficit Reduction Commission “headed [in economist Michael Hudson’s words] by avowed enemies of Social Security” (Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskin Bowles), its refusal to embrace the epic public worker rebellion in Wisconsin, and with other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), Obama’s “change” and “hope” (corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency has epitomized the power of what the radical critics Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.”[8] More than merely a “blunt lesson about power”[9] the Obama administration has been a veritable seminar on who really rules America beneath and beyond staggered, mass-marketed and candidate-centered election spectacles[10] and on the futility of seeking progressive change through the dominant electoral and major party modes.

And what of the Republicans Obama campaigned on cooperating with and with whom he has repeatedly sought right-leaning “centrist” bargains? They have only proven themselves to be ever more rancid versions of what many already knew them to be in 2007: hard-right arch-plutocratic sociopaths dedicated to dismantling whatever progressive policy and social welfare has been achieved by popular movements over the last century. Thanks in no small part to Obama’s tepid corporatism, those malignant psychotics have a very real shot at recapturing the White House next November.

“Serious Political Action”


Had he not imploded with the Hunter fiasco, Edwards might have been a natural candidate to run as a “progressive” primary challenger to Obama this year. But so what? The largely Left-led popular and populist rebellion against in-power Democratic Party corporatism (and Democratic Party imperialism and racism and sexism and eco-cidalism and…etc.) that emerged last year (most particularly with the rise of the Occupy Movement) and showed its anti-militarist side in Chicago last month is not focused on candidates or on major party politics. It is not looking for saviors from the elite political class and the money-soaked electoral system. As the late and great radical American historian Howard Zinn put it five years ago: “We who protest…are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable… Except for the rare few, our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ [a President Edwards would have been no exception – P.S.].”[11] As Zinn’s friend and ally Chomsky wrote two presidential election spectacles ago:


 “The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that they can’t be ignored by centers of power…In the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”[12]


The “really critical thing,” Zinn said more than once, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”[13] That is the lesson of, among other examples, the 1930s industrial workers movement, the civil rights movement,  the anti-Vietnam War movement, the woman’s movement – all developed, it should be noted, by hard, detailed, and dedicated work every day, not just once every four years.[14]


Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com


Selected Endnotes

[1] I owe this description of Obama “deeply conservative’) to an early portrait of the future president by Larissa  MacFarquhar in her essay, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From? The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). According to MacFarquhar, after conducting in depth interviews with candidate Obama and a survey of his political career: “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.”


[2] MSNBC “Hardball,” December 17, 2007.


[3] Paul Krugman, “Big Table Fantasies,” New York Times, 17 December, 2007.


[4] CNN/YouTube Debate, Democratic Presidential Candidates, Charleston, South Carolina, July 24, 2007, transcript available online at http://edition.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/07/23/debate.transcript/index.html.


[5] For more details and sources, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), 27, 30, 34, 38-40, 47, 52-53, 63-64, 99.


[6] Charles Pierce, “The Many Betrayals of John Edwards,” The Politics Blog With Charles Pierce (March 22, 2012) at http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/john-edwards-prostitute-7529610. Consistent with Pierce’s comment, Edwards was considerably more forthright and forceful than Obama about the persistent problem of racism and racial inequality on the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008. See Street, Barack Obama and the Future, Chapter 3.


[7] Mike Davis, “Obama at Manassas,” New Left Review (March-April 2009).

[8] Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009, read at http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/hp240709.html; Paul Street. “America’s Unelected Dictatorship of Money: Dark Reflections on the Need for Real Change at Home, Not Just in the Middle East,” ZNet (April 14, 2011) at http://www.zcomm.org/america-s-unelected-dictatorship-of-money-by-paul-street; Paul Street, “Whose Black President? Getting Things Done for the Rich and Powerful,” Counterpunch (July 30, 2012) at http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/07/30/whose-black-president/


[9] Ordinary Americans continued under Obama to receive what the venerable left-liberal commentator William Greider called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” See William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak but Is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009


[10] See Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); Roger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (New York: Harper Collins, 2010); Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (New York: Verso, 2011). Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).


[11]  Howard Zinn, “Are We Politicians or Citizens?” The Progressive (May 2007).


[12] Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City, Lights, 2007), 99-100.


[13] “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Socialist Worker, November 2, 2010, at http://socialistworker.org/blog/critical-reading/2010/11/02/legacy-howard-zinn.


[14] Chomsky, Interventions, 99.  

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