Edwards never expected to be the third wheel in 2008. The race was going to be Hillary versus him. That was how he saw it from the start. She would be the front-runner, of course. But as sure as night follows day, there would be an alternative, an anti-Hillary, and he would be it.
The Democratic Establishment agreed that there would be—and certainly should be—a viable challenger to Clinton. The party’s pooh-bahs on Capitol Hill were privately terrified about the prospect of Hillary rolling to the nomination. They feared that she was too polarizing to win, that she would drag down House and Senate candidates in red and purple states; and they worried, too, about Bill’s putative affairs. But while the Clintons themselves regarded Edwards as Hillary’s most formidable rival, there existed a deep wariness about the North Carolinian among his fellow Democrats. In the Senate, in particular, Edwards was regarded almost universally by his former colleagues as a callow, shallow phony. Quietly, the Establishment began a quest to find a different alternative, eventually settling on the unlikely horse that was Obama—with Harry Reid personally, and secretly, urging the Illinois senator to run against Clinton.
In 2005, however, those machinations were still a long way off, and the prospect of an Obama candidacy even more distant. To Edwards, the pathway to the nomination seemed clear: beat Clinton in Iowa, where his surprising second-place finish in 2004 had catapulted him to national prominence; survive New Hampshire; then kill her off in the South Carolina primary, which he’d carried the last time around. Over and over, he proclaimed to his aides, “I am going to be the next president of the United States.”
Some of Edwards’s advisers dismissed his outsize confidence as pro forma, but others took it as a sign of something deeper—a burgeoning megalomania. He was not the same guy who’d come out of nowhere and defeated the incumbent Republican senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998. Back then, everyone who met Edwards was struck by how down-to-earth he seemed. He had fewer airs about him than most other wealthy trial lawyers, let alone most senators.
Many of his friends started noticing a change—the arrival of what one of his aides referred to as “the ego monster”—after he was nearly chosen by Al Gore to be his running mate in 2000: the sudden interest in superficial stuff to which Edwards had been oblivious before, from the labels on his clothes to the size of his entourage. But the real transformation occurred in the 2004 race, and especially during the general election. Edwards reveled in being inside the bubble: the Secret Service, the chartered jet, the press pack, the swarm of factotums catering to his every whim. And the crowds! The ovations! The adoration! He ate it up. In the old days, when his aides asked how a rally had gone, he would roll his eyes and self-mockingly say, “Oh, they love me.” Now he would bound down from the stage beaming and exclaim, without the slightest shred of irony, “They looooove me!”
Once Edwards had been warm and considerate with his staffers; now he was disdainful, ignoring them, dismissing their ideas, demanding that they perform the most menial of tasks. He made his schedulers find out what movies were available on different flights so he could decide which ones to take. He would fly only first class or on private planes he cadged from donors.
As Edwards’s mistreatment of his staff and supporters got worse through 2005, aides interceded, trying to set him straight. “You can’t talk to people that way,” Hickman scolded him after one off-putting display. People are attracted to the nice John Edwards, and for a lot of them, you’re not that John Edwards anymore.
Edwards bridled at the criticism. “I don’t know where that’s coming from,” he snapped. “You have to consider the source … A lot of these people are hangers-on.”
One of the lessons that John and Elizabeth took away from 2004 was that they had relied too much on aides, advisers, and consultants. The political people hadn’t helped Edwards; they’d gotten in his way. If they’d just let John be John, he might have been president. Edwards had a phrase he used all the time to describe the problem: “the valley of staff.” In his next bid for the White House, he and Elizabeth agreed, they would circumvent the handlers, while John forged his own path. Rather than a campaign, it would be a cause.
The denizens of the valley of staff were astonished by the narcissism that had infused their candidate. But for a long time, they continued slaving in the service of the illusion at the core of Edwards’s political appeal: that he remained the same humble, aw-shucks son of a mill worker he’d always been. The cognitive dissonance was enormous, sure, but they were used to that. Because for years they’d been living with an even bigger lie—the lie of Saint Elizabeth.