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Lessons From Literature

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Like Dorian Gray, John Edwards had a painting of himself in the attic, absorbing all the wrinkles from a dissolute life, freeing him to campaign for the presidency fresh, perfectly coiffed and without a trace of a care on his brow.

Now we watch the man derided for his vanity as "the Breck girl" age before us, with puffs under his eyes, a strained expression about his mouth, the lilt gone from his voice. The Breck girl has disappeared. Like "the two Americas" he discovered and deplored, he's a divided self -- one for public consumption and the other for private indulgence. His political career was destroyed in the collision of his two lives.

We all weep for his family and can even feel the pain of those who believed in him. The allegorical figure of Hypocrisy moves unseen among all of us. "Neither Man nor Angel can discern Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible," writes John Milton in "Paradise Lost." Such evil can be deadly.

Fortunately for the Democrats, John Edwards' pride goeth after his fall. Democrats shudder at the thought of Edwards as their nominee and the scandal breaking a week before the convention in Denver. The man is now safely a sidelined event, swelling the scene (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in "Hamlet"), a morbid afterthought but not central to the action.

Politics is theater first of all, and against the backdrop of a mighty ego falling with a mighty thud, we hear the noise of Hillary Clinton's supporters crying like a Greek chorus for "catharsis." Woe to them who would mute their voices in the roll call of states. They want to praise Hillary, not bury her, for she is an honorable woman. A woman doubly scorned by man and party, she's no Lady Macbeth of Little Rock now.

Hillary's husband, likened to Achilles sulking in his tent, reappears on stage as more comic than tragic. When he ascends to the podium at Denver for one last moment in the sun, he is less the man driving events than a man driven by events, and to the margin of public attention. He prescribes hundreds of millions of dollars to heal the sick, but cannot heal his own lame persona. His celebrated hypocrisy -- "I did not have sex with that woman" -- is echoed in the script of the John Edwards soap opera.

Great literature with all of its fictional heroes and heroines offers insight into the human condition well beyond the tacky revelations of the media. We revisit Barack Obama basking in the adulation of a quarter million Germans as he stands at the foot of a victory column topped by a golden angel. What's wrong with that picture? To ask is to answer: He's talking to the wrong audience. The thousands before him aren't the only voters who matter. He's only the "good enough" man, not the triumphant knight returning from battle. That's why John McCain's mockery of his celebrity drew blood.

For all of his faults, McCain holds no illusions about his audience, or the figure he cuts as a sturdy man with his battle scars. If we were watching the young fighter pilot who went off to war with the looks of a movie star and a twinkle in his eye, we would react in a different way than we do to a 71-year-old man tempered by the vicissitudes of life we see etched in his face. If he's no Prince Hal, he has nevertheless been tested in ways Obama has not.

The McCain management style is loose, sometimes bordering on chaotic. He defends it nonetheless. "I think a certain amount of tension is very healthy," he told The New York Times. "Soldiers are taught to expect the unexpected and accept it, and revise, improvise and fight their way through adversity."

John Edwards is said, in one telling of the story of his public humiliation, to have consulted a guru -- this was in Southern California, after all -- who encouraged him to meet his mistress and her baby at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The guru would soothe because his "knowledge of the past and the future helps people find balance in the present."

The senator might have consulted Shakespeare, instead, perhaps Macbeth's three witches at their cauldron, prophesying "double, double, toil and trouble." Or, since this is August, "Midsummer Night's Dream," where Puck offered the appropriate benediction: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

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