Who's the biggest phony of them all?

Paul Greenberg

9/7/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

John Edwards, the presidential candidate, has been outed by the Wall Street Journal as the kind of investor in subprime real estate that he's been blasting on the campaign trial.

It turns out that the hedge fund Mr. Edwards has a long and profitable connection with - Fortress Investment Group - invests in the kind of "shameful lending practices" that Candidate Edwards denounced when he kicked off his presidential campaign in New Orleans' Ninth Ward last December.

The very model of the populist orator, Candidate Edwards took out after those nasty subprime lenders who've been foreclosing on poor folks in Katrina's wake. The candidate felt no need to go into detail - and mention that his hedge fund's lending unit was doing just that.

One of Fortress' subsidiaries was trying to hold a 67-year-old New Orleans resident in default on her mortgage just two months after she was flooded out of her home.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a total of 34 homeowners in New Orleans were facing foreclosure suits filed by Fortress' subprime lending operation.

Mr. Edwards earned almost $480,000 as a consultant to Fortress last year, has picked up about $150,000 in campaign donations from its employees, and has invested $16 million of his own $30 million in assets in the company.

Fortress in turn has taken the precaution of incorporating its hedge funds in the Cayman Islands, which lightens its investors' U.S. tax load. Naturally enough, that's another practice John Edwards has criticized.

Fortress' well-paid consultant claims he had no idea the investment firm was expanding its subprime lending, even though its involvement in such loans was reported back in May.

Maybe he should start reading the papers.

And do you remember his fiery speech about "Two Americas," a grand oratorical performance in the spread-eagle tradition of William Jennings Bryan's populist classic, "Cross of Gold"? It turns out that John Edwards belongs to the America he's been lambasting.

Quite an orator, that John Edwards. He delivered a rousing speech on the evils of poverty - a cri de coeur entitled "Poverty, the Great Moral Issue Facing America" - at the University of California-Davis for a mere $55,000. (His spokeswoman noted that part of his fee went to a booking agent, and that Bill Clinton had charged $100,000 for his speech there, as if any of that mattered.)

Taking everything into consideration, some of us could better understand why it would be worth $55,000 not to hear John Edwards deliver a speech about the moral challenge poverty presents. The poverty he's most successfully combated has been his own.

The contrast between John Edwards' public stances and his private choices is enough to give mere sanctimonious hypocrisy a good name.

To quote the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, who goes by the wonderful name of James A. Thurber, on the subject of John Edwards:

"It is self-evident that he is saying one thing on the campaign trail and investing another way." Self-evident? Not to the poor suckers who swallow his act hook, line and Poor Boy image.

Candidate Edwards now says he'll divest himself of any part of his portfolio at Fortress that involves subprime loans - while keeping his $16 million investment in the fund. That's going to be an interesting challenge in accounting, not to mention simple moral consistency.

Speaking of consistency, the candidate also has made a big deal of how environmentally aware he is while, at last report, living in a 28,200-square-foot home, counting its two garages. It's the biggest and costliest house in Orange Country, N.C.

That 28,200 square feet includes an adjacent 15,600-square-foot recreation building complete with basketball court, squash court, two stages, swimming pool, four-story tower, lounge and other amenities. This guy's got a bigger environmental footprint than Godzilla.

None of this would be anybody else's business if John Edwards weren't a presidential candidate with a hankering to lecture the rest of us on the need to conserve energy.

This is the same candidate who, when he was running for vice president back in 2004, flew his hair stylist across the country (from Beverly Hills to Atlanta) to trim his 'do. Total cost: $1,250. And it does look mighty nice.

Hypocrisy, said La Rochefoucauld, is the tribute vice pays virtue, and let it be said John Edwards never stops paying tribute to virtue.

It hasn't been too long since he was urging his Democratic rivals for the presidency to return any money they'd received from press tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the publisher the left loves to hate, and refuse to appear on Murdoch's Fox News network.

Mr. Edwards himself had appeared on Fox News 33 times at last count. And he's collected $800,000 for a book published by a subsidiary of a Murdoch corporation, HarperCollins. (The candidate says much of the money went to charities. One of them, College for Everyone, turns out to be one he founded.)

Presidential campaigns have a way of attracting gold-plated phonies and, before this one is over, no doubt the inconsistencies of other candidates will be laid bare, too.

But for now, when it comes to deciding who's the phoniest of them all, John Edwards leads the pack - and his lead may be unbeatable.