Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 10, 2010

John and Elizabeth Edwards: Psycho Mutants, or Just Political Run-of-the-Mill?


Ego Monster John Edwards NYM.jpg

Saint Elizabeth Edwards NYM.jpg

If people inside the Beltway knew the Edwards’s were phonies, and if the media and Washington’s political elite were running interference for Edwards upon, and well after the disclosure of his self-annihilating affair, the bottom line is not that John and Elizabeth are monsters. It’s that there is really no one to trust out there to slice through the “three bags full,” ten-layers of spin between the public and the steady stream of shallow, craven personalities infesting the political scene.

As I tweeted yesterday, I’ve got a problem with the comic book-style illustrations in New York Magazine’s adaptation from “Game Change,” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book. If you haven’t read it by now, it will singe your fingers and steam clean your eyeballs in its likely justified, if thoroughly soap opera-style demolition of (Ego Monster) John and (Saint) Elizabeth Edwards.

Now that the couple has been exposed, however, instead of dismissing them as one-offs and demented, one-dimensional cartoon aberrations, why doesn’t NY Mag show them to us in full 3-D so we can actually look back and see how these neurotic power-trippers actually had us fooled in the first place?

John-Edwards-Jack-Bus.jpg John Jack Edwards.jpg
Elizabeth Ema Edwards 1.jpg Elizabeth Ema Edwards 2.jpg

Back in August of ’07, I was critical of a NYT article regarding presidential candidates and how much they should or shouldn’t be dragging their kids around on the campaign trail. Specifically (because, like so many other progressives, I was taken in by the Edwards “two Americas” message), I was harping on the reporter for focusing on tensions in the Edwards family.
In hindsight, though, knowing what we apparently know now about John as well as the supposedly equally egomaniacal Elizabeth, it’s especially interesting taking another look at the NYT video piece shot on the Edwards bus. When you watch, for example, notice:

>There is no chemistry between the couple at all. He has his shoulder positioned so he effectively turns his back towards her. Also notice how robotically fawning she is toward John, as well as how attuned she remains to the reporter.

>Check out the obvious tension between Edwards and his son, Jack, especially in his warning at the table and and how he takes Jake’s wrist.

>Look how Edwards is peeved when the media pays more attention to his kids on a trampoline than to him.

>Watch how Elizabeth, in a sugary way, plays off Emma Claire as an annoyance while John gives Jack a little heave ho.

>Most telling — near chilling, actually — is John’s strained insistence that he needs his kids physically connected to him, stating how their absence is not only not good for them but, as he states emphatically three times, not good for him.

> Finally, watch how he chastises Jack in an only half-joking voice about getting too friendly with the press, saying in front of the reporter, “They’re not your friends” … with Jack, getting the last word, disagreeing with him.

The critical lesson here, however, is to avoid vilifying or pathologizing John and Elizabeth Edwards, then walking away. The point and the opportunity, instead (although lost on NY Mag), is to appreciate how much personality framing, propagated by the handlers and perpetuated by the media, makes it near impossible to see the true nature of flawed political actors across the board.

(illustrations: Nathan Fox for NY Magazine)

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