Often I am contacted by the media when a celebrity or politician is caught in a career-ending scandal asking if and how they can make a comeback. This isn’t a surprising question as America is the land of second chances and we are filled with celebrities and politicians who have bounced back and recovered some of their reputation. Richard Nixon is of course the most notable example. In fact in New York, Eliot Spitzer is to the point that he has actually been considering running for office again. In this day of Oprah, a disgraced politician or celebrity knows running to her couch is the best way for redemption, even if you aren’t scandal scarred. But even when seeing a decline in popularity her couch is the best place to be seen. Just ask Jay Leno, who of course shot to ratings success when he had Hugh Grant battling back from his scandal in 1995. Indeed it is very rare for a celebrity or a politician to be unable to recover their reputation somewhat. Even Mark Foley, the Republican Congressman who resigned in disgrace in 2006, has a radio show and even potential voters in Palm Beach County who want him to seek office again. That is why the case of John Edwards is so striking. There is no way for him to make the fabled comeback − Bernie Madoff might stand a better chance.
Polls show that John Edwards is one of the most despised personalities in America. People on both sides of the political isle no longer have any use for him. His former aides are discussing how narcissistic he is and the ugliness of his affair. His wife, Elizabeth has separated from him. But beyond that is the total unraveling of John Edwards as a man and the ghoulishness of his affair with Rielle Hunter that make a comeback unimaginable.
The public will forgive much (just look at Michael Vick who is back in the NFL). But they will not forgive someone who lies to them and whose entire public existence has been a lie. Edwards ran for office as a populist, who loved the people and loved to campaign. Yet now it comes out that while he considers himself a populist, he can’t stand the people whose votes he wanted. He would wear Italian suits but tear off an aide’s “Made in America” clothes tag – placing it on his own clothing and pretend his suits were American to fool the voters. His whole political persona that had been carefully developed was a lie. People can forgive a broken promise or even a lie on the campaign trail. They won’t forgive someone whose entire political persona has never existed.
Beyond that, the final nail in Edwards’ image is his affair with Rielle Davis. The fact that he tried to cover it up, is not in itself what puts him beyond public rehabilitation. It is the details of his affairs and attempted cover-up. People are not just angry or shocked at the details, they are uncomfortable. People have said he sounds like a psychopath and frightens them as the details have come out. The fact Edwards promised to marry his lover after his cancer stricken wife dies strikes people as frightening, macabre, and ghoulish. His continued denial that the child from the affair was his and the desperate ways he sought to find paternity by stealing a diaper seems beyond the pale to many.
America is filled with stars and politicians who have made comebacks. Yet the difference between these fallen idols and Edwards is that they disappointed and angered their fans. Think Tiger Woods, the public was shocked at his sexual activities and his adultery, yet never questioned his golfing ability that is his claim to fame, thus he can recover. Edwards on the other hand has been stripped of his identity but even worst his behavior doesn’t just anger or shock people it frightens them. A person can overcome anger and outrage at their antics, fear is entirely different. Not even the most gifted publicist can rehabilitate that.
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