Commentary: John Edwards' ego topped his self-awareness

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Jason Fritz / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / MCT

Looking back, the $400 haircuts and the ostentatious mansion should have been a giveaway that John Edwards really was the pretender his detractors snickered about.

But the presidential wannabe at one time sounded like he understood what this country needed. He sounded like he genuinely cared about working to improve the lives of poor Americans; to address international problems such as disease and terrorism; to strengthen families and encourage responsibility.

All the while, he reportedly was destroying his own family, demonstrating mind-numbing irresponsibility and lying to himself as well as the public.

In December 2006, I was impressed by Edwards' message at a Dallas Bar Association awards luncheon: "There's a hunger to be inspired again."

I wrote that Edwards could best Barack Obama on political experience, that Edwards carried less baggage into a presidential race than Hillary Clinton. I might not have voted for him in the end, but he looked like a contender with appealing ideas.

Turns out that he was worse than a cardboard cutout.

By the time he came to Dallas, he apparently already had shifted into implode mode, and even key aides were bailing after he rebuffed their efforts to save him from his foolish selfishness.

In a January New York magazine piece excerpted from their book Game Change, about the 2008 presidential race, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin portray an Edwards who morphed from genuine guy into self-absorbed, self-destructive creep as he gained -- and grew enamored with -- national attention.

They also depict Elizabeth Edwards as imperious and foul-mouthed, hardly the smart, admirable cancer-survivor the public embraced.

Who among the masses realized the Edwards' private life was more soap-operatic than Sarah Palin's and more nauseatingly tawdry than Tiger Woods'.

At least the Woods saga included the perversely comic image of his wife hacking the windows of his crashed car with a golf club, not to rescue him, as initially claimed, but probably to smack him for serial adultery.

If the revelations of Game Change and a new tell-all by a former aide are to be believed, Edwards' downfall is absurd as well as pathetic: He hired a bar groupie to film his campaign, had an affair with her and got her pregnant while his wife fought breast cancer. He denied tabloid stories about the infidelity -- until much later admitting it.

A sycophantic assistant claimed the baby as his, then took his own family to live near the mistress, financed by a political supporter. Edwards denied paternity -- until admitting it last month, when the baby turned 2.

The assistant's back-stabbing book claims he paid the mistress from money an elderly widow sent Edwards in boxes of chocolates.

A grand jury is investigating whether campaign funds were misused.

This man who wanted to be president apparently learned nothing from Gary Hart's delusion that he could carry on his monkey business during the 1988 campaign without getting exposed.

Edwards apparently learned nothing from Bill Clinton's ludicrous 1998 denial that he had sexual relations with that White House intern.

Did Edwards believe lies repeated on TV would absolve his misdeeds?

Did he consider the consequences for his children: a Harvard law graduate, elementary school son and middle-school-age daughter?

Presidents and Oval Office aspirers are egotists. The tame and insecure don't have the self-assurance to convince themselves or others they can lead the free world's most powerful nation.

People cheat and lie. Even some of our most admired presidents engaged in scandalous private indiscretions that today might have done them in.

But self-awareness and good judgment are crucial in successful national leaders. The emerging portrait of Edwards suggests that, if he had either, he abandoned them for gain that couldn't possibly have been worth the pain.

Edwards' campaign Web site archives, still online, have this post from when he bowed out of the 2008 race:

"I began my presidential campaign here to remind the country that we, as citizens and as a government, have a moral responsibility to each other, and what we do together matters. We must do better, if we want to live up to the great promise of this country that we all love so much."

Too bad he didn't act like it.