Reading Andrew Young’s jaw-dropping account of John Edwards’ 2008 self-immolation called The Politician and simultaneously Jane Austen’s Persuasion was oddly illuminating. After all, what do politicians do but persuade, persuade us that they know what’s wrong and that they have the smarts, will and integrity to fix it.
Austen views her world from the mental perch of the landed gentry and carefully assigns a social grade to all human beings, from The Poor, who barely reach that category at all, a faceless mass of no individual interest, past household servants and tradesmen, up to the shabbily genteel and the carefully measured ranks of curates, soldiers, respectable bourgeois and titled nobility.
Austen pokes fun at sterile snobbery, but she knows who is a baronet and who is not. Her works are conservative to the core in ways that we find laughable. But she is on the lookout for what makes people tick within their social milieu, and her values are decency, sincerity and empathy.
Austen would have had her pince-nez firmly focused on golden-haired John Edwards long before the rest of us. She would have spotted the cancerous hubris that sprouts and runs wild when people rocket up the social scale within a single lifetime, from a ‘poor kid from Robbins’ to a major actor on the national stage. We Americans love this myth and think there is something particularly noble in starting from nothing and rising to the top, precisely what would make Austen shudder.
Young worked for the Edwardses, sacrificing his own family life not only to his boss’s political career but also to fixing their garage door, buying their Christmas trees and generally acting as their personal servant. The stories are hilarious and excruciating, like the time Mrs. Edwards promised a woman help in taking a truck-driving course and left Young the chore of getting up before dawn to ferry her to the classes.
Young is entranced by Edwards’ skill as a politician and believes in his stump speeches about the Two Americas, the deepening gap between those who enjoy the fruits of prosperity and those who don’t. He sees the hypocrisy of his bosses’ increasingly lavish lifestyle and entitlement, their stunned fascination with wealth, fame and connections, but he soldiers on, thinking these are necessary compromises, how the game is played, etc.
Persuasion is the drawing room drama of a young gentlewoman convinced to refuse an insufficiently rich suitor and finding her way back to him once he resolves that obstacle by making a ton of money. She is misguided by her advisers but agrees that their advice, under most circumstances, would have been correct.
Austen is telling us that there is no substitute for ‘breeding’, for knowing how one must behave, what is done and not done, and she takes as a given that this knowledge is not available to everyone, nor can it be learned in books (although they help). She would not be surprised that Edwards, a nouveau riche, would take up with a wacko New Age floozy like Rielle Hunter, nor that he would screw her in his wife’s bed while the latter was off getting cancer treatments.
Our myth of the classless society, for all its charms and advantages, has blinded us to the character weaknesses of people who are too scarred by the commonness and poverty of their origins to resist the dazzle not just of power and wealth but also the intoxicating message that they are extremely special. The dizzying social mobility provided by our celebrity culture thrusts people like Edwards into environments they simply are not prepared to handle soberly. Drunken addiction to adulation quickly follows along with the mistaken belief that they can get away with anything.
They also are far more likely than a comfortable scion of old money to swallow the elite’s policy viewpoints, and it is here that the winner of 2008 has manifested a similar weakness. It’s no accident that FDR grew up in a country estate and traced his ancestors back to the Dutch settlers. He and Eleanor knew the bankers and the industrialists and weren’t impressed by them. From this snooty milieu—not from the rags-to-riches set—emerged the landmark anti-poverty achievements of the 20th century.