John Edwards, Narcissus and the Illusions of Life

All of us make mistakes.  I’ve made a few (thousand) in my life, and continue to make them on a daily basis. Some are inconsequential, like typographical errors in my blog or miscalculating the supplies needed for a day’s work.  Others have been memorable, like that pint of apricot brandy I agreed to in the autumn of 1964, or the decision to keep driving a logging road on California’s “lost coast” in a Toyota.  And of course there are the embarassing mistakes: calling a person by the wrong name, showing up at the wrong time, or discovering that, when the invitation says “cruising casual”, they may not mean tee-shirts and sperrys. 

All these mistakes are easily overcome.   Closer attention while editing, a little more caution in the face of new experiences, a willingness to swallow hard and apologize, and life goes on.  We laugh, admit an error and ask forgiveness.  If we’re lucky, all is forgiven, and soon it’s forgotten as well.

Other mistakes loom larger, and bring more serious consequences.   Putting diesel into a car’s gas tank, forgetting to unplug the computer during a thunderstorm or neglecting to cancel just one stolen credit card can cost as much in peace of mind as dollars, but those dollars count.  And just a step up the scale, mistakes can damage lives forever.  Deciding to leave a child unattended for “just a moment”, neglecting to make that trip to the doctor or trusting someone who proves in the end to be eminently untrustworthy may be mistakes, but they are of a different order of magnitude.  It still may be possible to recover, but the process can be long and excruciatingly painful.


Whether former Presidential candidate John Edwards will recover from his months-long binge of self-proclaimed mistake-making remains to be seen. Edwards didn’t simply show up wearing black tie at a white tie event.  He left his entire life, including his wife, his children and the Democratic party unattended for “just a moment” while he carried on an affair with Rielle Hunter.  Whether he persuaded, allowed or demanded his wife participate in maintaining secrecy about the affair is uncertain.  What is quite clear is that he carried on the affair while touting his family life as an indication of his character and qualification for office, not to mention involving his wife and campaign staff in a coverup.

Edwards’ own words tell the tale.  In a March 27 interview with Katie Couric, he said,

“I think every single candidate for president, Republican and Democratic have lives, personal lives, that indicate something about what kind of human being they are. And I think it is a fair evaluation for America to engage in, to look at, what kind of human beings each of us are, and what kind of president we’d make.”

On August 8, Edwards provided a statement regarding his personal life which included this:

“I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs. I recognized my mistake and I told my wife that I had a liaison with another woman, and I asked for her forgiveness. Although I was honest in every painful detail with my family, I did not tell the public. When a supermarket tabloid told a version of the story, I used the fact that the story contained many falsities to deny it. But being 99% honest is no longer enough.”

If Edwards has made a new commitment to 100% honesty, one of his first actions should be to eliminate the word “mistake” from his statements, and substitute “miscalculation”.    His behavior during the affair and in the months that followed was not unintentional or accidental.  It was calculating, cynical in the extreme and utterly devoid of regard for others.  There is a word for such behavior, particularly when it is accompanied by self-absorption, intolerance of other viewpoints, and a firm belief that one lives outside the bounds of moral and ethical standards.  The word is narcissistic, and it is a word that Edwards himself chose to use during his interview with Bob Woodruff on ABC’s Nightline:

“I went from being a young Senator to being considered for Vice President, running for President…becoming a national public figure, all of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want, you’re invincible and there will be no consequences.

Like Narcissus gazing into his pool, full of admiration for his own image and oblivious to the world around him, Edwards became enthralled with some of the most common illusions of life: that his behavior was excusable because it was his behavior, that others existed only to serve his purposes, and that his own cleverness and agility would prevent others from discovering his secrets. 

Certainly he isn’t the first to entertain such illusions, and he won’t be the last.  Anyone who takes a peek at the personal qualities catalogued in the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder probably recognizes a person or two from his or her own life.  It may be a workplace supervisor who demands constant adulation and explodes at the first hint of criticism.  It may be a partner who requires constant attention, but seems incapable of giving attention in return.  It can be a co-worker, clever beyond words and addicted to proving his superiority at the expense of others.  In nearly every case, there is a secret of one sort or another, and a person utterly convinced that their secret is safe, known only to themselves, and their image in the pool.


Life being what is it, discovery does happen.  Sometimes, carelessness born of misplaced confidence provides a clue to the truth. Occasionally, someone less self-absorbed sees the discrepancies between image and reality and demands an explanation.  Now and then, simple serendipity casts an unexpected stone or two into the mirror-like pool of self-absorption.  As its effects ripple across the beloved image and distort its superficial perfection, even the most dedicated narcissist may glance up, bemused, wondering who dares disturb his languid contemptation.

Whether anything changes after such a moment of discovery is never certain.  In the case of Edwards, asked if he thought his political career would end because of his decisions, he said, “I see no end.  I don’t think anything’s ended. My Lord and my wife have forgiven me, so I’m going to move on.”

I’m not entirely certain what I think of Edward’s statement, but I am certain of this.  Narcissus would be proud.    


Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Leinen.   All rights reserved.

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10 thoughts on “John Edwards, Narcissus and the Illusions of Life

  1. Linda, obviously you haven’t yet seen any of Indonesia politicians, have you? Their delusional narcissistic inanity IS legendary! Go figure if you got time.

    Hi, Baba,

    Ah… another world-wide phenomenon, I see. I confess I haven’t spent much time contemplating the Indonesian politicians, but it would take something truly remarkable for them to move our own off the front pages. I did just make a quick run over to google and entered “indonesian politics narcissism”.
    My goodness! I’ll have to set aside a bit of time to explore all the entries that popped up!

    Good to see you – hope all is well on your side of the world.


  2. Why let John Edwards define himself as a narcissist? How is he different from any other cheating husband? Seems to me that he’s just a grade A (and stupid) Adulterer.

    If John Edwards is a narcissist, then lets compare this to the DSM psychiatric criteria for his personality disorder:

    Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-R), the diagnostic classification system used in the United States, as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.”

    A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following[1]:

    1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
    2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
    3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique
    4. requires excessive admiration
    5. has a sense of entitlement
    6. is interpersonally exploitative
    7. lacks empathy
    8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
    9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

    So, let John Edwards call himself a narcissist. Obviously, someone has told him this in the past. So, if you voted for Edwards, then you have to ask yourself why you would put the United States in the hands of such a person?

    Of course, if John Edwards was smart, he’d have claimed that Rielle was simply a surrogate holding his baby (from artificial insemination). Elizabeth had full knowledge and expected the child to be turned over, but John was meeting with Rielle after she reconsidered. This explanation even covers the money payments. Well, seems like John really ain’t too bright!! Just a poor liar and a cheat!

    Good afternoon, Rose,

    I must say – your suggestion re: surrogacy, change-of-heart and the involvement of Mrs. Edwards in the entire process is one of the most creative I’ve seen. And, your re-emphasis of the DSM criteria is helpful.

    The truth is that affairs happen for a multitude of reasons. Some have to do with circumstances, such as the long illness or hospitalization of a spouse. Some are a result of simple opportunity, some grow out of long-term and intense work relationships, and some reflect the values of people who, quite frankly, see commitment and responsiblity as rather tiresome. Offering up a personality defect such as narcissism as a rationale for irresponsible behavior may be exactly “on target”, but explaining is not the same as excusing.

    Since Mr. Edwards has chosen to head down that path, and since his behavior certainly does exhibit narcissistic tendencies, I’ll accept the premise. But whether he is or isn’t a narcissist doesn’t change the bottom line. His behavior wasn’t a “mistake”, like accidentally throwing away the phone bill. His behavior was quite intentional, and continued over time. One of the most important lessons in life is that behavior has consequences, and I imagine he’s about to relearn that lesson in a number of significant ways.

    Many thanks for your visit, and for your comment!


  3. Ho-hum. This story of self-indulging politicians is getting tiresome. Reading of their affairs is like reading a romance novel – just change the Who, When and Where, but the What is the same.

    We in New York recently went through this with Eliot Spitzer, the wonder boy who was starting his run for the White House. As Spitzer resigned in disgrace, incoming Governor Patterson revealed his list of affairs. I’d really rather read a cheap romance novel.

    I agree with you that Edward’s (and others’ ) behavior isn’t just a mistake. I consider it poor judgment, and I don’t care to have a person with poor judgment or questionable character making decisions that affect literally billions of people.


    Unfortunately, poor judgment and questionable character are roaming abroad in the land. If they were paired with incisive intelligence and the ability to make clear, rational decisions, I might not feel so badly about it. Sometimes I’m not sure whether I’m watching a campaign or the latest season of “Survivor”. What bothers me most is that “Survivor” may have a better formula for determining a winner.

    Some of the more reasoned and less salacious discussion of the entire matter has focused on what might have resulted if Edwards had won the nomination. How that could have happened with the rumors so clearly floating for months isn’t clear to me, but I think we can at least be grateful the country has escaped that particular horror.

    As always, a delight to have you stop by. Thanks for contributing to the discussion!


  4. Can anyone say Gary Hart? Perhaps the illustrious Senator Edwards should take note of the former Senator Hart’s political career.

    Good evening, JD,

    Hmmm… It has been a while since I’ve thought of Senator Hart. To be quite frank, I haven’t a clue where he is or what he’s doing. Perhaps I’ll go check.

    Good to see you, and as always, thanks for stopping by!


  5. My point exactly. If ex-senator Hart hadn’t dallied with his own narcissistic extra-marital affair, with the attidtude to boot, there would have been a very good chance that he would have been an ex-president now. And you would know what he was doing presently.

    Only heaven knows why each one of these guys think they’re ‘different’ and the rules don’t really apply to them when clearly, from the long list of ex-politicians who have done the same, they do. Part of the syndrome I suppose.

    Morning, Joan,

    It is amazing. People keep saying, “Why can’t he (or she) see what’s going to happen? Why can’t they learn from other peoples’ mistakes?” There’s the point. I suppose a good question would be whether narcissistic sorts are drawn to politics or whether politics encourages the development of such traits. In any event, the refrain is constant: “I’m different, my motives are more pure, and it won’t happen to me.” Except it does.


  6. I’m always amazed at how some people live their lives as if the rules don’t apply to them. And, they always seem surprised when reality comes knocking and crashes their party. You see it in the lives of politicians, celebrities, sports stars, and even just your average Joes.

    When faced with a temptation, if only we could take a moment to think outside of ourselves and consider how our decisions might affect others, especially our loved ones!

    Very thought-provoking post, Linda. Especially your point about how the Senator’s behavior was a choice, not just a momentary “Oops!” I wonder if he is truly sorry, or merely sorry he got caught.

    Morning, Tee,

    I suspect Senator Edward’s is truly sorry he got caught!

    I was just thinking about other arenas where the same sort of dynamics can be found. What crossed my mind was a very, very common occurrence in this country. Someone has one, or two, or six too many drinks, and then gets into the car to drive somewhere. “Naw, I’ll be fine….” translates roughly as, “It can’t happen to me.” But there again, it does.

    As I heard someone say yesterday, with a deep sigh, “Well. At least he can function as a good negative example.” Not quite the legacy one might hope for.

    Always a delight to have you stop by!


  7. Mistakes, like accidents, can result in wounds or injuries that will heal. If you choose to live your life in the turd pool, the sound you hear when the handle gets pulled down will not be the roar of the crowd!

    Hi, Daniel,

    So few words, so much truth! And there are so, so many people ready to pull that handle. You would think Senator Edwards might have considered that.

    Glad to see you “up and about”! Always pleasing to have you stop by.


  8. This is one of those sad but true tabloid stories that deeply saddens me.

    Good afternoon, BeachFoxx,

    It is a sad and distressing story, with very real tabloid qualities. Part of what gives it that tabloid quality is that Senator Edwards’ behavior seems nearly as unbelievable as “space aliens captured my baby”. The more I hear, the more speechless I become.

    So very nice to find your comment waiting for me this afternoon!


  9. ‘Mistake’ is too light a word for actions like these… they used to be called ‘committing adultery’. This leads to another issue: it seems Edwards likes to see his God as a forgiving God.

    How lovely and convenient to have such a forgiving God, and wife, so he can just simply “move on”…

    Is receiving ‘forgiveness’ the only thing a wrong doer should be concerned about? What about making amends, remorse, change of heart (which used to be called ‘repentance’)…? Or, are these terms too ‘religious’ for him?

    Hello, Arti,

    From what I’ve heard on the news since coming home from work today, it may be that Elizabeth Edwards, at least, is intent on a bit of public accountability from the good Senator.

    Your comments are on point. Confession and absolution belong together, and the point of absolution always has been to free a person for just those actions you mention: making amends, taking a new direction in life, turning away from evil and toward the good. The point isn’t how John Edwards feels, the point is what he does. The man does have a number of decisions to make.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the comments.


  10. Linda

    As you may know, I’m a European.

    So John Edwards, whoever he is, may be narcissistic. So what? Who is he anyway? Another man somewhere. There are lots who behave far worse. So what is it here that deserves my special attention here? Should I feel moral outrage about this man? Should I feel that he is any worse than any other narcissistic, inflated, power-crazed, egotistic politician somewhere else in the world? I don’t really get the point or is this some American party-political point you are trying to make here?

    I really don’t understand your purpose in writing this.

    Take care,


    Hi, Geoffrey,

    My purpose in writing the essay was really quite simple. In this country, we are overrun with politicians, CEOs and officials of every sort who increasingly engage in dishonest, deceitful and duplicitous behavior. When confronted, they often prefer to admit to a “mistake” rather than take responsibility for quite intentional behavior. Senator Edwards was the latest example of the phenomenon, and so I wrote about the situation.

    I didn’t have any larger political point in mind – certainly not party politics. I do happen to have a strong bias in favor of honesty and integrity, which I hope was obvious from the essay. But honesty and integrity can be found across the political spectrum, just as dishonesty and deceit pop up in every political camp. That’s the way of life.

    In any event, you’re free to feel about it as you will. I’d never mean to suggest to anyone they “should” feel this way or that about what I write. I simply write, and readers respond, as you have. I appreciate the comment, and look forward to new offerings on your pages.

    regards, Linda

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