Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tabloid update: Exploding marriages

"Obama Marriage Explodes!" the National Enquirer headlined on an April 2008 cover, but at the time there was nothing inside the magazine to back it up. The story was about Michelle Obama's fears that there might be photos and love notes from women in her husband's past that could create a huge embarrassment for them just before the election.

Senator Obama reportedly told his wife that there were no love notes and no photos.

That was all there was to the story, but to a casual observer in the supermarket checkout line, the cover gave the impression of a full-blown Clinton-style scandal.

At the time, America Wants To Know speculated that the Clintons were behind the story, possibly planting it through their attorney, David E. Kendall, who had represented the National Enquirer for fifteen years.

We would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mr. Kendall and to take another guess.

Recently we were reading up on the latest revelations about former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards, not in the Enquirer -- we're getting to that -- but in New York magazine, excerpted from the new book "Game Change" by political reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin:

Roger Altman picked up the phone in his 38th-floor office on the East Side of New York and found Edwards on the line. Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and a supporter of Hillary’s, was chairman of the investment group Evercore Partners. Since 1999, Evercore had owned a stake in American Media, the publisher of the National Enquirer--and it was that connection which prompted the call that day in the first week of October [2007].
There was no reason for the Clintons to pay David Kendall's hourly rate when they could just pick up the phone and call Roger Altman.

So we stand by the guess that at a critical point in the 2008 primaries, the Clintons fed a phony story to the National Enquirer, trying to neutralize the infidelity issue by making voters think the Obama marriage was no different than theirs.

Or maybe everybody was just psychic.

Because last week the Globe headlined its cover, "Obama Marriage Explodes!" and this time it appears to be true.

Back to that in a minute.

The reason John Edwards called Roger Altman on that October day was to beg him to stop an upcoming story in the National Enquirer. The story was going to allege that he had an affair with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter. Edwards told Altman the story was outrageous and untrue.

It was all true.

Roger Altman told Edwards he didn't think he could do much about it, but he would call the publisher and talk to him.

Which he did.

But it was all true and the publisher had the evidence.

Then Elizabeth Edwards called Altman. "You must do something about this, she begged," according to Heilemann and Halperin. "It's cruel, it's unfair, and it's untrue. This is way too much for me. I can't take it. It's killing our family. It's killing me."

That was the strongest card she could play but it wasn't enough to stop the National Enquirer from exposing the whole sordid story of presidential candidate John Edwards recklessly cheating on his cancer-stricken wife with a woman his aides considered a dangerous bimbo groupie.

Edwards denied the story and denounced the Enquirer as trash, which the editors didn't appreciate. They ran a follow-up story in December showing Rielle Hunter six months pregnant.

Yet Elizabeth Edwards didn't walk out on the marriage. Instead she helped to develop a damage-control strategy and continued to help her husband run for the Democratic nomination for president in Iowa. Aghast at these developments, top staffers quietly plotted to leak the whole story to the New York Times and destroy the campaign in case Edwards somehow pulled out a victory in Iowa.

But Barack Obama won Iowa and John Edwards began an effort to sell his endorsement to the highest bidder in exchange for the VP nod, or the job of Attorney General, or something appropriate to his standing in the party.

Edwards was still holding out for a deal in February, when Rielle Hunter's baby was born, and in May, when Hillary Clinton won the West Virginia primary. It was then that Obama called Edwards and offered him a prime-time speaking slot at the convention, and for that, Edwards endorsed him.

Then in July, the National Enquirer staked out a Beverly Hills hotel and caught John Edwards meeting Rielle Hunter and their baby.

Edwards decided to appear on ABC's Nightline and semi-confess to infidelity without admitting paternity, which just made everything worse. The invitation to speak at the convention was withdrawn.

"Game Change" details the screaming arguments between John and Elizabeth Edwards as well as the couple's grandiose and abusive treatment of the campaign staff.

John Edwards was very nearly elected vice president in 2004, and there was a moment in time when he looked like he might become the Democratic nominee for president in 2008.

According to "Game Change," that's the precise moment when senior Senate Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, urged freshman Senator Barack Obama to run for president.

"Edwards was regarded almost universally by his former colleagues as a callow, shallow phony," the authors write.

Former colleagues certainly didn't rush to defend him this week when the National Enquirer hit the newsstands with its cover story, "John Edwards Caught Cheating AGAIN!"

But this time it's different. "Humiliated wife finally kicks him out," the cover promises. The story says Mrs. Edwards threw her husband out of the house after Christmas, screaming that she was finally going to sign the divorce papers that have been gathering dust since her lawyers drew them up last year.

"The Enquirer has learned exclusively that the philandering ex-senator embarked on a 'sex-and-booze bender' after what appeared to be a marriage-ending blowout fight," the tabloid reports.

John Edwards reportedly moved to the couple's vacation home on Figure Eight Island near Wilmington, North Carolina, where he crawled the local bars every night, hitting on female employees and customers. Bartender Stephanie Breshears said Edwards tried on "four consecutive nights" to get her to go home with him after her shift at the Kornerstone Bistro.

"I think he's scum," Ms. Breshears told the Enquirer.

Now THAT'S the kind of judgment we've been looking for in a president. Why don't people like this ever run for office? We'll come back to that.

But first, the Obamas' exploding marriage.

America Wants To Know suspected that the president was cheating on his wife when we saw the Secret Service's odd reaction to the gate-crashers at the state dinner for the prime minister of India.

We also thought it was a bit odd that the president's aides waited three hours to tell him that a suspected terrorist tried to blow up a plane over Detroit with an underwear bomb on Christmas Day. Three hours? Imagine for a moment that you worked for the president. Under what circumstances would you just not disturb him?

That's what we thought, too.

Three hours is about right.

The Globe says the president's marriage "has been pushed to the brink of destruction by the intense pressure of White House living. That's the word from stunned insiders who say the First Couple is fighting tooth and claw behind closed doors and their 17-year union is edging ever closer to a shocking final meltdown."

The Globe's sources say "their marriage has been like a war zone." They're "screaming at each other" and "glaring" and "stomping off in different directions."

President and Mrs. Obama were trying to patch up their marriage with the Hawaiian vacation, the tabloid says, renting a $9 million ocean-front house along with two neighboring houses for friends who joined them on the trip.

"The whole holiday was a disaster," a source tells the tabloid, "They got into a huge fight the second they were on the island."

Some of the Globe's details are corroborated by mainstream press reports. The Obamas didn't go to church on Christmas and the couple didn't exchange gifts. That's in the Globe and also in the Washington Post.

"Barack can't believe how much Michelle has been spending since she became First Lady," the Globe reports. The spending, if not the disbelief, is corroborated by the NBC TV station in Dallas with a slideshow of Mrs. Obama's designer clothes, including a pair of black flats by Maison Martin Margiela that retail for $640 (but can be had for less):

Reporters on the Honolulu trip also took note of Mrs. Obama's absence from the group of eighteen friends and family members who accompanied the president on a trip to buy shave ice, otherwise known as snow cones, on New Year's Day. "First Lady Michelle Obama didn’t make the outing," ABC News volunteered.

It doesn't prove anything.

But there have been signs of stress. There was that we-just-had-a-fight body language when the first couple arrived at the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington for an anniversary dinner last October:

And when they left:

And there were those odd comments Mrs. Obama made to a New York Times magazine reporter about "bumps" in their marriage with the president "studying the carpet as she answered."

And just this weekend the president surprised his wife with a birthday dinner at a local restaurant. The guest list included the first lady's mom, her chief of staff, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, two friends from Chicago, Attorney General Eric Holder and his wife.

As comedian Argus Hamilton would say, just the two of them and their food tasters.

We don't know whether Michelle Obama is the type of person who would stay or leave if her husband was revealed to be a faithless philandering egomaniac. She might be Elin Woods, packed and out of there, or she might be Hillary Clinton, staying in it for the power and the glory and the salaried make-up and hair stylists.

What we do know is that too many of our presidential candidates fit the description in "Game Change" of John Edwards' implosion: "an archetypal political tragedy in which the very same qualities that fuel any presidential bid--ego, hubris, vanity, neediness, a kind of delusion--became all-consuming and self-destructive."

Ego, hubris, vanity, neediness, a kind of delusion. The qualities that fuel any presidential bid.

This is really dangerous.

Is it an unintended consequence of thirty years of campaign finance reform?

Not so very long ago, a small group of people could donate a large amount of money and finance the candidacy of a person they believed would make a good president, or senator, or congressman.

No more.

Now a candidate has to be willing to spend two or even three years raising small donations and shaking every hand in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now a candidate has to be the kind of person who is so driven to be famous and powerful that no indignity is too great. Instead of thoughtful and accomplished candidates who do not wish to be publicly humiliated, we've got candidates who only went into politics because their parents stopped them from running away to join the circus.

Quick, guess how many recent presidential candidates have had issues with their fathers and are desperate to prove their success in a poignant and futile effort to win their father's approval.

Did you guess ALL of them?

Maybe we should take another look at those campaign finance laws. They were based on the belief that large donations were corrupting, but there must be a better way to keep corruption out than to make our candidates run a two-year obstacle course that no completely sane person could possibly tolerate.

Copyright 2010

Editor's note: You might be interested in the earlier posts, "The case for adultery," "Hillary's shocking secret illness!" "Political marriages on the rocks," "Obama marriage explodes!" and "The strange but true source of extreme partisanship."