This blog has noted that without a dollop of humility, leaders are at risk of humiliation.
Also that most crises are self-inflicted, and that the timeliness and quality of the response are more predictive of reputational harm than the severity of the underlying event.
We see all three of these principles at play in the John Edwards scandal.
Former senator John Edwards, 55, was a contender for the Democratic Party nomination until the Spring, and has been on the whisper list as a possible vice presidential nominee or attorney general in an Obama administration.
No more. He won’t even have a role at the Democratic National Convention later this month.
Denying the National Enquirer Stories
For months Senator Edwards denied having an affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer who did a series of web films about Edwards in 2006.
When the first story appeared Edwards said, “The story is false, it’s completely untrue, it’s ridiculous.”
Coming Clean on ABC Nightline
On Friday Edwards confessed to Bob Woodruff of ABC News Nightline that he had in fact had an affair:
“In 2006 2 years ago, I made a very serious mistake. A mistake that I am responsible for and no one else. In 2006 I told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness, asked God for his forgiveness. And we have kept this within our family since that time. All of my family knows about this and just to be absolutely clear, none of them are responsible for it. I am responsible for it. I alone am responsible for it.”
What makes the crisis worse for Edwards is that throughout the campaign he lied about the affair, and had his staff deny the affair to the news media.
There are also many unanswered questions that will keep the story alive.
As this blog has noted, rumors thrive on ambiguity. And there’s ambiguity aplenty here:
- Edwards says that he’s not the child’s father, and is willing to take a paternity test to prove it. But Hunter refuses to allow a paternity test.
- Edwards aide Andrew Young (not the former UN Ambassador) says he’s the child’s father, but no father was listed on the child’s birth certificate.
- Fred Baron, Edwards’ former finance chairman, made payments to Hunter. Edwards told ABC that he neither knew about the payments nor asked that they be made.
- Edwards admits that he visited Hunter last month in a California hotel, but chooses not to give details about why.
The fact that Edwards lied about the affair makes his denials about the paternity and the payments somewhat unreliable.
What Was He Thinking?
The bigger question, of course, is how he could have chosen to run for president after having the affair, and think that it would not become known. He addressed this on Nightline:
“It’s what happened with me and I think happens unfortunately more often sometimes with other people.… Ego. Self-focus, self-importance….All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences. And nothing, nothing could be further from the truth.
WOODRUFF: So your assumption was that you’d just never be caught?
EDWARDS: It was a huge judgment, mistake in judgment. But yeah, I didn’t think anyone would ever know about it. I didn’t. And the important thing is, how could I ever get to the place, to that place and allow myself to let that happen?…
WOODRUFF: Why did you continue to deny it [publicly] and not tell the truth?
EDWARDS: Because I did not want the public to know what I had done. Fair and simple. And there’s also a lot of these you know supermarket tabloid allegations are just lies, they’re complete lies. But this, this mistake, is the truth.”
What Might Have Been
Edwards’ owning up to his alpha-male arrogance may be admirable after the fact, but the consequences of his lack of humility are potentially significant.
What if Edwards had prevailed in the primaries, and was poised to become the Democratic nominee? The revelations, especially now, weeks before the Convention, could have dramatically changed the political landscape.
And some argue that Edwards’ behavior already has. Former Clinton communication director Howard Wolfson argues that if Edwards hadn’t run, Senator Clinton would have won Iowa and would have prevailed in the primaries. We’ll never know.
So what will happen to Edwards?
He told Nightline that he expects his career in politics to be over. We’ll see. The punditocracy is populated with pols who have survived scandals, ranging from Ed Rollins to Dick Morris. Even President Clinton recovered from the Monica Lewinsky affair and his lies about it.
There may be second acts in American politics. But don’t expect Edwards to serve in any role that requires Senate confirmation or public support in an Obama Administration’s first term.
Edwards will need to keep a low profile for now; to focus his immediate attention on resolving lingering questions, making things right at home, and then staying out of the limelight for a while.