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"99% Honest"

By Jon Keller

Ah...boomer political leadership in full flower. The untrammelled narcissism. The self-righteous indulgence in situational ethics. The sickly smell of moral relativism left out in the sun too long.

But the John Edwards debacle offers more than just this item's headline, an automatic inductee into the pantheon of political perp quotes alongside the likes of Bill Clinton ("it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is") and Richard Nixon ("I am not a crook"). It provides a useful opportunity to drain a chronic abcess in the political culture that could promote long term healing.

Edwards disciples (if there are any of you left), stop reading now, I really don't want to hurt your feelings. But the blunt truth is if you never previously noticed what a transparently oleaginous phony Edwards was, you are either extraordinarily naive or, more likely, susceptible to the cult of personality that successful politicians breed. This is nothing new - George Washington had his own image-making machine; Franklin D. Roosevelt fully embraced the emotional appeal of mass-media politics, pioneering techniques that Nixon and John F. Kennedy expanded on; from Huey Long to Ronald Reagan, effective populists of the left and right have relentlessly milked their personal appeal for political capital.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. In a democracy, much should be demanded from those in political power. If human nature compels us to emotionally invest in a politician as a prerequisite for involvement in the process and high expectations, so be it.

But leave it to the "me" generation to overdo it. Baby boomer activists and voters subscribing to the generational conceit that political activism is an expression of one's deepest personal convictions -  and thus, politicians are a vehicle not just for a social cause, but for the validation of oneself - are distorting the system and enabling appalling egomania. In their clueless, fevered denounciations of Edwards critics over the years, his sycophants egregiously confused the righteousness they felt for their cause with the need to assert the righteousness of the candidate, in the face of glaring signs of the runaway narcissism Edwards has now confessed to. By blowing through all warning signs to build and worship this false idol, the Edwards cult could have crippled the party's chances this fall, and may still have done serious damage, set aside the clear harm done to the groups and social causes that had affiliated themselves with Sen. Oil Slick. This fiasco takes its place alongside other self-righteous boom-era political cults gone overboard, like Operation Rescue, the Ross Perot campaign, and MoveOn.org.

But maybe out of Edwards' slime, something useful might evolve. I propose a deal: if future candidates will abandon messianic politics and stop peddling themselves as personal saviors, we the people will stop investing them with unreasonable expectations. Under this agreement, John Edwards would run as a young, aggressive trial lawyer who would, as president, use those skills to game and bully the system into raising taxes to provide more social services, with an enhanced role for the unions and trial lawyers whose money and clout were the entirety of the Edwards campaign. Voters would review that platform, weigh its potential consequences for the nation, watch Edwards run to guage his toughness and self-discipline, and then decide if he makes the grade. No one would expect Edwards to be a saint (although they might still hope his word would be worth more than it is), and votes for him might be cast based more on what he might do for all of us than on how "good" he makes a voter feel. There would be less fuel for the candidate's narcissism, more realistic expectations among his supporters, and, if elected, less chance of a disproportionate backlash over the collapse that inevitably occurs when the Red Bull of boomer political worship wears off.

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large