Robert Penn Warren in True Life: The Politician, by Andrew Young

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
December 22, 2010

John Edwards in Springfield, MO

Image by marlana via Flickr

There’s two good ways of looking at Andrew Young’s new book on John Edwards. First way is that it is a National Enquirer sort of trashy cashin dishing out all the inside dirt on John Edwards and his sex life, mostly at the expense of his saintly cancer infected and now dead wife Elizabeth. All that is there, sure. I suspect that most of the reviewing press looks at this book this way, and that academia, if they pay it any attention, will as well. The other way of looking at it is that the book is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men in real life form, a political right-hand man’s story of his life in politics with a talented and charismatic and powerful politician, from his rise to his fall. That’s how I see it, and I see a great deal of value to this book because of that. Whatever the tabloid aspects are to this story, it is a most valuable truthful account of the inside of American politics and of the people in it. It also is a cautionary tale for us all, but not in the usual sense of “This could happen to you–beware!” of most cautionary tales. It has a more disturbing one than that, I’m afraid.

Andrew Young was the bookish son of a dynamic liberal crusading southern college preacher married to his equally uncommonly strong and liberal college sweetheart. That marriage cratered in a big way when Andrew was in high school, when his father was caught on tape cheating with a church deacon’s wife. Andrew went on to college, but afflicted with post-traumatic disillusionment, he dropped out and then jacked around pointlessly for a decade before deciding to go to law school, where he graduated in the early ’90’s with no desire to practice law but instead with a desire to get involved in progressive/liberal politics in his home state of North Carolina. During that jackaround period Young started and successfully ran a bar but lost interest in it and went bankrupt, apparently leaving lots of creditors unpaid. Young, introverted and tongue-tied in public, found a rare and invaluable talent in himself in his first political campaign, the 1994 Jim Hunt reelection, as a campaign fundraiser. Young discovered that he had the most rare gift of talking to strangers over the telephone and winning them over to write checks for someone they’ve never met’s election campaign. Of all the skills in US politics, this one is without a doubt the most useful in a political campaign. Young went off to some of the usual state political jobs until he tossed his lot in with John Edwards’ 1998 run for the US Senate.

Young played a key role in John Edwards’ successful, against the odds victory in that election. Moreover, at the end of it, he found himself having become John Edwards’ right-hand man, his dogsbody, his manservant, his concierge, all in one. Not just John’s all of the above–he also became Elizabeth’s as well. Young tells the story from the book’s earliest chapters onwards, of how he increasingly subsumed his life to theirs. It is a most rare and honest story of how an intelligent person became seduced by both the lure of political power, and the personal power and authority of a charismatic and talented part-sociopath political leader. For all this book’s value as a first-rate account of inside American politics nowadays, one of the best nuts-and-bolts inside tellings of American political workings, its stellar virtue is this account of seduction, self-surrender, and betrayal. Most people just don’t have it in them to be as honest as Young is about how badly they let themselves get used by someone else as he was. Robert Penn Warren’s book doesn’t give us that important story near as well. Great as Warren’s book is, it lacks two essential elements in it that Young’s provides us. First is the honest account of yielding your life, and personality, to a charismatic leader. Second is the warts, or worse, mostly all of sex and power, of political leaders and our political system that Young details. It isn’t just that Warren’s times kept him from dealing with sex issues in his book; they of course did. Warren’s literary approach lacked the cynicism and black humor that is necessary to get to the real core of human behavior in politics. Young’s tale, despite its considerable literary flatness, is a more accurate and revealing account than Warren’s for the same reason that Celine* told a better story of colonial imperialism than Conrad. Human behavior is quirkier, smaller, and trashier than literature generally lets on. The tabloid aspects of Young’s story are not just cheap peephole entertainment; they are truthfully humanly revealing in a way that the usual words-trades authorities don’t generally acknowledge.

And there is no shortage of quirky, small, and trashy behavior by the major parties here. Does John Edwards grow more vain, arrogant, and self-centered as the story progresses, or does Young just gradually lose his blinders about the man he devoted his life to? Elizabeth Edwards is nowhere in this book a sympathetic character, she is entirely too small and mean a person–nowhere in this book did I see a single act of kindness done by her to anyone of the crowd of people attending to her. Not one, for an entire decade. Rielle Hunter is almost a cartoon character of egocentrism and self-indulgence. No fiction writer could seriously create a character who calls her $200-a-call psychic advisor twice during a sandwich shop meal for psychic advice on her reuben’s dressing and psychic advice on if she should send it back, which she wound up doing, twice. And Andrew Young himself, for all his professed desire to do good and improve society, has hardly a word on any policy issue in this book’s 300 pages, save a brief exculpation for Edwards’ support for invading Iraq. None, anywhere, in 300 pages. Instead Young writes about an endless game of perks seeking and getting and trading, one-up-manship on the publicity treadmill, and of life on a short taunt cell-phone leash to a pair of people who thoughtlessly and cheerfully yank it harder and oftener as time passes. Such sympathy for Mr. Young as I have is tempered by the fact that he made enough money on the job to build his dream house out in the country, which most of us never will, without apparently thinking to repay his creditors from his bankruptcy. Someone should ask him if the thought ever crossed his mind. Doubt it, myself. The only major character in this book who deserves praise is Andrew Young’s wife, who put up with, and gave up more than most anyone deserves to, for her husband’s career.

The high-school English teacher view of this book is that it is a tragedy of a bright and talented young man who wants to do good in the world and who tosses his lot and then some into the life of a deeply flawed charismatic political leader. “Now children, don’t do this” being their take on the deep edifying message of this book.** Some truth to that, but the better, more disturbing message in this book is a deep and disturbing question about American politics. If American politics and political life is as it is portrayed here, which of course it is, then you have to ask just how it is supposed to address and solve any of the deep and real problems we as a society face. The problems of American society, or most anyone else’s ever in history, are problems of politics, problems that can only be solved through the political decisionmaking process. They won’t be solved from any scientific/technical, imperial command, or divine deus ex machina; they can only be solved from correct, or at least good, decisions made and implemented by a working political process.*** Electoral politics here is shown to be a circus of extremely ambitious and amoral people fulfilling their power and sex urges and spending their time and energies there at the expense of every other part of their lives. How our great problems and issues are ever to be addressed and solved by these greatly flawed people living the rat on a treadmill life of an elected official is something that completely escapes me after reading this book. As is the utility of electoral politics in general.

The book is well worth a quick read. It is an essential read for anyone in a college poly-sci program, whether their professors agree or not. And I hope, sincerely, that both Andrew Young and John Edwards do something worthwhile with the remainder of their lives, as they both are extremely talented persons who, flawed as their souls are, have more than an average feeling for humanity and a greater than average desire for human betterment, and moreover, have talents enough to where their efforts at it might just yield some worthwhile results. (I confess, I hold out no hope for Ms. Rielle Hunter.) I sincerely wish them well, and I’d like readers to remember that just because our larger political system and its leaders are so flawed does not mean that our own political efforts are. There’s all sorts of problems in our own backyards that require political solutions so we must pitch in and politic away to solve them if we are ever going to solve them. We all need to keep trying, that’s all.

*Journey to the Heart of Darkness, by Celine (Louis-Ferdinand Destouches), a truer, better, and infinitely funnier and more entertaining book than Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an unfortunate favorite of generations of high school English teachers.

**Basically, an English teacher version of the universal piece of advice suitable for any event or occasion, namely: “Don’t fuck up!” Universally useful piece of advice we always get that is quite completely useless.

***Which fact should lead poly-sci types to ask the question then of just how much of the important decisions in our society really get made through the political process? The Political Science profession, such as it is, and innumerable other savants in our society, don’t want to address how so many, most, of the important decisions get made by various monied interests competing against each other in their own system of closed politics.