Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Heros Fall

It has been a bad week for the men I used to admire. Both my sports hero, Lance Armstrong and my political hero, John Edwards are in deep trouble with the Feds. The common thread seems to be shear arrogance and hubris. Neither seemed to think the rules applied to them. Both thought they had their double dealing under control. And both had their duplicity blow up in their faces.

It is hard to choose which is bigger heart breaker, the sports star or the politician. The stories mirror each other so much. The fall from grace for both was epic. Let’s take the sport star first.

I begin with Lance because he had the higher, harder climb, and might be the bigger fall. He started as a hard scrabble child from the big empty of the Dallas suburbs. He was a lost and angry teen who found salvation in triathlons. In that sport he was a phenom. As the word got out, pro cycling came knocking. Lance became part of the fabled Motorola team of the early 1990.

It was as part of that team that Lance hit bottom. The diagnosis, testicular cancer. It was Lance’s climb back from near death that became the feel good story at the turn of the millennium. The fact that Lance did not just win but dominated in most of his Tour de Frances was only icing on the cake. Lance danced away on the pedals and humiliated Jan Ullrich on one of the most brutal climbs in cycling, the Alpe d'Huez, it was pure magic. For seven Tour de Frances, Lance was the top dog.

But even in the glory days there were clouds forming. Distinct muttering could be heard from the French fans. After a while, the muttering became growls of dissent. Before long, what was once only muttered under the breath was shouted to the rooftop: “cheat.” But those protestations made little headway with the UCI.

That feckless institution, the UCI, always failed to get the goods on Lance. Truth be told, the UCI is a somnolent and toothless watch dog. The heavy lifting in almost every big doping case has been done by either French or Spanish police. In that regard, past is prologue as once again it is a much more competent enforcement agency, the US Federal Prosecutor’s Office, that is looking to put a hurting on Lance. As this is same prosecutor that put delivered the pain to Gary Bonds, Lance cannot be in his happy place. 

Lance’s fall from the podium to (possibly) Club Fed is the stuff of Greek Tragedy. It has not happened yet, but much of the damage has already been done. Lance is no longer a hero, he is more a zero. What stings the most is the lying.  It is the pretense that Lance projected that is the unkindest cut. Lance presumed that he could always run rings around the blazing mediocrity that was and is the UCI. Little did he know that BalCo would bring in a much bigger, and much much nastier dog on to his trail. For that error Lance is going to pay dearly.

The other man who has already paid dearly, with his reputation, is John Edwards. From near 2004 nominee, to the pages of National Enquirer, it has been a wicked roller coaster ride, straight down. 
Like Lance, Edwards started from humble beginnings. The big difference with Edwards is that the artifice began a lot sooner. Edwards’ dad did work in a mill, but as middle management. The family turned in its blue collar early and was comfortably middle class for most of John Edwards’ formative years. 

This does not mean that Edwards was not a wildly successful trial lawyer, that he did not take his natural gift of gab and transform it into pure gold, he did. But the poor boy done good was more fiction than truth.

Still, no one took that image and rode it for all its worth like John Edwards. Smoother than the highest price silk, he was a monster in the tort court room. The man could hook into a juries emotions and do major damage to the oppositions case.  Lawyers came from miles away just to hear John Edwards’ closing arguments. 
This golden boy image only got better with pathos. The death of Edwards’ oldest son added a patina of gravitas to both John and his wife Elizabeth.  John and his wife got serious and got into public service. Edwards ran for US Senator, and won, a very good showing for a novice politician. From the hollowed halls of the Senate Edwards only looked forward and upward, he ran for president in 2004. While failing to grasp the brass ring, Edwards made a very big splash. Looking to balance the ticket, and for help in the south, John Kerry put Edwards in the VP slot. 

Edwards was riding high now. He was the Vice Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Edwards was star struck. He loved the perks, the attention, the notoriety.  What he did not love was the position of second fiddle. Kerry and Edwards ran a disjointed campaign with Edwards going off the reservation early and often. It was here that Edward’s Ego monster was first visible. Edwards’ colleges in the Senate had always found him shallow and narcissistic but as the VP candidate he became insufferable.  And even though he was part of a loosing team, Edwards was now definitely a rock star in the political arena.

Edwards did not miss a beat, he began running almost right after the 2004 vote. By 2006 he was already camped out in Iowa. Nothing stopped him, nothing even slowed him down. The return of his wife cancer, now inoperable, was not even a speed bump. It was all boilers at max, full speed ahead. It was on that road to glory that Edwards detoured to infamy. It was on the road he met the woman who would undo him. 

I am still mystified what Edwards was thinking when he met Ms. Hunter, the New Age flower child and air head.  That she was absolutely smitten with Edwards was obvious. That she was nothing but bad news was also obvious to every one in the campaign who was not John Edwards. 

The human heart is a dark and unexplored realm. The human heart keeps its own consul, never asking nor listening to the wiser mind. Why Edwards would choose a fruit loop bimbo over the wife who had stood by him and believed in him so fiercely is mystery for the ages. Something in Edwards must have snapped, some need had gone unfulfilled for far too long. Somewhere over the years the man had lost all respect for his wife.

I can’t speak for the wife, people can stave off humiliation even when it is staring eyeball-to-eyeball in their face. Elizabeth pushed off the signs of her husband’s infidelity until they were breathing fire in her face and singing off her eyebrows. Of all the deadly sins, pride has to be the worst. It was only after John’s campaign ended, and his very name, became a national joke that Elizabeth finally struck. Edwards was paid back in very same humiliation he gave his wife; and with interest.

I wish I could end this tale here, with only a sad and sordid tale of marital infidelity, and the payback a wrong wife doled out just before she left this earth; but I can not.  This morality tale has yet another chapter, one to be written in Federal Court. John Edwards is accused of violating campaign finance law, which is ironic as the Citizens United decision has essentially made that law a farce.

The case is a stretch. It all hinges on the question whether the money spent to keep Edward’s paramour out of sight was part of the campaign, or just a sordid private matter. It is a tangled and confusing mess for the jury to figure out.  Edwards is admitting to being a cad to his dying wife, but he is arguing that is not a Federal offense. This is not the best possible defense, however it is the only one available to Edwards.

With the possibility of a plea bargain quickly receding, it is crunch time for Edwards. If convicted he looking at lot more than the six months incarceration the Feds offered. Pride is, again,  a dangerous thing. To preserve the last bits of his pride Edwards is risking utter ruination. If he fails, he becomes a convicted felon, and looses his license to practice law. If convicted, there is no path of redemption for John Edwards, at least not through public service or Pro Bono cases. 

Maybe the man is fooling himself with that possibility anyway. For many Americans the only recompense John Edwards can offer is to set himself on fire. Still, if Edward Kennedy could rebuild and redeem himself after what was essentially involuntary manslaughter and perjury at Chappaquiddick bridge, why can’t John Edwards dream big?

I don’t know if the possession of a Y chromosome makes one much more prone to these kinds of epic pratfalls. Maybe famous women don’t get caught up in these things too often because the opportunities are so few and far between for them. Other than Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley  I can’t think of any other woman who managed to perform the belly flops that Lance Armstrong and John Edwards did. Is there something in Testosterone that make one susceptible to raging egomania and arrogance? Both these men showed epically bad decision making. Both these men had an overabundance of hubris and narcism. Neither of these men showed any fidelity to their wives, nor to the rules of the profession they participated in. Both demonstrated the self-control of a spoiled toddler. Is it any surprise that both look to be given a huge time-out by Uncle Sam?
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