At one point toward the end of last week, as each of them mustered stoic faces for sorry fates, John Edwards and Newt Gingrich were only a few dozen miles apart. Edwards sat mutely in a courtroom in Greensboro, where his breathtaking deceptions in the service of his towering ambitions were laid bare for the world, which watched raptly, but not in admiration.
Gingrich shuffled pointlessly through a zoo in Asheboro, a peacock with faded plumage, still preening and still campaigning, though the attentions of most reporters and the affections of most voters had moved on. After the zoo, he visited the nearby Petty Museum. The Richard Petty museum, that is, but you can’t blame a columnist for abbreviating its name, given how neatly the shorthand complements the candidate.
Gingrich and Edwards belong to different parties but are beholden to similar demons, and they have a whole lot more in common than a bounty of hair – white in the Republican’s case, brown in the Democrat’s. They’re the salt and pepper of outsize egos in presidential politics.
And to look at the two of them together, which their recent convergence in the news and on the map encouraged, is to confront some unsettling truths about a kind of person too frequently drawn to high-level office and about traits that often abet his rise and then seal his fall.
Beware the extreme narcissist. Although he may radiate a seductive confidence, he can justify and forgive himself for just about anything, given his belief in his own exalted purpose. He’ll lose sense of the line between boldness and recklessness. And he’ll quit the stage reluctantly, because he can’t bear not to occupy the very center of it.
What once drew so many people to Edwards and to Gingrich? Both men had an exaggerated and infectious certainty about them.
It is the kind of thing that arises from vanity on a scale well beyond the political norm. Gingrich spoke of himself in ludicrously grandiose terms. Edwards charted the size of his crowds and the volume of their applause the way a day trader watches the Dow. Every day was a bull market.
When you’re that wholly in thrall to your own heady promise, you exempt yourself from rules, absolve yourself of hypocrisy and persuade yourself that you’ll get away with it all. And so Gingrich pressed for the impeachment of a philandering president despite his own continuing adultery.
It was almost inevitable that he cheated: someone as intent on affirmation as Gingrich – or as Edwards – isn’t likely to remain content with the knowing gaze of a longtime spouse. He needs the bedazzled expression of a fresh acolyte.
Edwards commenced his lunatic dalliance with Rielle Hunter at his moment of greatest political possibility – after he’d been his party’s vice presidential nominee and shortly before a new bid for the top of the ticket.
And neither the affair’s exposure nor the birth of the couple’s child convinced him that his political career was done. He got a slavishly loyal aide to claim to be the baby’s father. As hard as it is to imagine such sycophancy, it’s harder still to imagine the hubris of the leader who would request and be comfortable with it.
That sort of leader, to use the term loosely, treats himself to other people’s money without any compunction about how it’s being used. Edwards’ wealthy benefactors, foremost among them a woman who was then in her mid-90s, funneled nearly $1 million toward Hunter’s care, feeding and, prosecutors contend, silence. Meanwhile he soldiered on.
Until last Thursday night, Gingrich had a Secret Service detail that was costing taxpayers about $40,000 a day. Never mind that any hope he had of winning the Republican nomination had been extinguished weeks earlier. The campaign went on.
And its debt climbed to about $4.3 million. Creditors eagerly await payment.
“It’s been a long and expensive two years,” he told North Carolinians late last week, as The Times’ Mark Leibovich reported. “But it’s been fun.” And that’s what really matters. Gingrich’s good time.
As long as he’s an object of mild curiosity, even if it comes with major ridicule, he has not yet become an afterthought. And that’s the territory that men like Gingrich and Edwards dread most.