Francois de La Rochefoucauld had a point when he said, in his frequently quoted formulation, that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. In the case of John Edwards, however, hypocrisy is simply a way of life.
The infamous $400 haircut -- actually, some of his hairstyling sessions ran as much as $1,200 all told -- wasn't a freak embarrassment for a candidate so self-righteously devoted to the poor. It was part of a pattern so pervasive that it has become the defining aspect of Edwards' candidacy.
When he lambasted hedge funds for incorporating offshore to avoid or delay paying U.S. taxes, what could be more natural than that he made nearly $500,000 for part-time work at the Fortress Investment Group, with hedge funds incorporated in the Cayman Islands for tax purposes?
When he hit other candidates for taking donations from Rupert Murdoch's media holdings, wasn't it inevitable that it would turn out he had taken $800,000 from Murdoch's HarperCollins for a coffee-table book?
Or when he attacked subprime lenders for foreclosing on victims of Hurricane Katrina, he would have $16 million -- half of his net worth -- invested in Fortress while it was foreclosing on a couple dozen homes in New Orleans?
Most of us uphold ideals that we can't meet, but liberal populism shouldn't be such an impossible standard. The late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, a liberal populist to his core, never had such embarrassments. The former North Carolina senator is experiencing a kind of toxic shock from his synthetic political persona.
In 2004, John Edwards was Mr. Congeniality, for no other reason than that seemed the market niche for him in the race. Today, he is the angry populist, for no other reason than that seems the market niche for him in the race. He thrived in the Iowa caucuses four years ago as the fresh new thing; this year he looks like a version of Dick Gephardt, the union-pandering populist with the negative campaign.
Edwards' anger has about all the heft and seriousness of a 5-year-old's tantrum. All candidates fear making a gaffe in one of the debates. Edwards has to worry that Hillary Clinton will blow on him and he'll float away -- like Mary Poppins with her magic umbrella, carried off by the unbearable lightness of his own political being.
If a paranoid theory were needed to explain Edwards' candidacy, there are two, equally plausible options. Is he a plant from the Democratic National Committee designed to make Clinton and Barack Obama look impressive by contrast with his sheer insubstantiality? Or is he a plant of the Republican National Committee designed to pull the top-tier candidates as far to the left as possible?
On the big issues of the day, Edwards specializes in can't-keep-his-story-straight contrivance. Democratic consultant Bob Shrum described in his book "No Excuses" how his political advisers talked Edwards into voting for the authorization of the Iraq War in the fall of 2002. Edwards vehemently denies it, but also says that he didn't express "the huge conflict" he had in his own mind about the vote, which makes it sound like politics played as big a role in his decision as his conscience.
On gay marriage, he said that he opposes it because of his religious background, but then explained that it had been wrong for him to say that. He now offers no real reason for his opposition. Surely, the hindrance is simply that it is the most politically contentious item on the gay-rights agenda.
Edwards says on the campaign trail that he can beat the special interests the way he beat them in the courtroom as a trial lawyer. Back then, how John Edwards lived and his past record didn't matter, so long as he told the jury what it wanted to hear. Edwards still seems to think he's in the courtroom, which is why he is so deaf to the jarring incongruities of his lamentable campaign.