There is some sincerity and some snake oil in every politician, but John Edwards exudes both in almost freakish measure. During the primaries, I saw him deeply move audiences with his up-from-nothing life story, his empathy for the working class and his call for a national crusade to eliminate poverty. Afterward, though, I usually heard a few snarky comments about the golden perfection of his hair, the blazing whiteness of his smile and the opulence of his North Carolina mansion.

Maybe Slippery John somehow convinced Earnest John that this moment would never come. In fact, it was inevitable — and if Edwards had somehow won the Democratic nomination, the party would be in the midst of a historic meltdown.

In terms of newsworthiness, it’s supposedly not that a politician has an affair (none of our business, we tell ourselves) but that the politician lies when asked about it, thus violating the public’s trust. And, indeed, Edwards lied when the National Enquirer confronted him about his affair nearly a year ago, and he continued to lie until his confession on Friday.

In this case, though, we should just admit that it’s not the lie that makes the story compelling. It’s the “How could he?” factor. We all know about Elizabeth Edwards’ battle against breast cancer. We remember the news conference at which the couple announced that the cancer had returned and was incurable but that they intended to press ahead with the presidential campaign. We saw a strong, loving marriage that could teach us lessons about living life to the fullest.

Edwards says his affair — with Rielle Hunter, a onetime campaign aide — was initiated and terminated at a time when Elizabeth’s cancer was in remission. He acknowledges that this doesn’t ameliorate his sins, but he apparently hopes that it makes him seem like less of a heel.

At least he was man enough to do his mea culpa interview with “Nightline” by himself. Standard practice for adulterous politicians in such situations is to have the betrayed and humiliated spouse there, too, grimly demonstrating support if not forgiveness. But Edwards claimed, and Elizabeth later confirmed, that he insisted on facing the music alone.

To the extent that he has faced the music, that is. He was forthright and plainspoken with ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff about the central facts — his relationship with Hunter, his having lied about it repeatedly, his betrayal of his marriage. But when pressed on certain details, Edwards retreated into lawyerly precision.

He maintained, for example, that he knew nothing about any hush money Hunter might have been paid. But it’s clear that he desperately wanted her to hush. Edwards acknowledged that the whole point of his meeting with Hunter at the Beverly Hilton Hotel last month — a rendezvous somehow sniffed out by reporters from the Enquirer — was that “I wanted her not to tell the public what had happened.”

Was she threatening to tell all? Given that Hunter was a struggling single mother with a sensational story to sell, wouldn’t Edwards have been the least bit curious about her financial circumstances?

Fred Baron, a wealthy Dallas lawyer who was the national finance chairman of the Edwards presidential campaign, said Friday that he provided unspecified “assistance” to Hunter without telling Edwards or anyone else. But when I listen to Edwards’ careful words and read Baron’s careful statement, I have to wonder whether this is an exercise in compartmentalization and deniability.

Then there’s the question of Hunter’s baby, which Edwards adamantly denies fathering, to the point of announcing his eagerness to take a paternity test. (Hunter said in a statement Saturday that she would not permit a paternity test to be made.) When Woodruff pressed him about an Enquirer photograph that purported to show Edwards holding the baby, Edwards parsed his words:

“I’m saying you asked me about that photograph. I don’t know anything about that photograph, I don’t know who that baby is. I don’t know if the picture has been altered, manufactured, if it’s a picture of me taken some other time, holding another baby … I have no idea. I was not at this meeting holding a child for my photograph to be taken, I can tell you that.” Edwards finally told Woodruff that he didn’t recall a baby being present. Uh, OK, glad we cleared that up.

I hope Edwards is finally leveling with us — and with himself. I’ve always thought there was genuine substance beneath all that slickness.

Whenever I want to write him off as a total fraud, I tell myself that if Elizabeth Edwards loves and respects him, he can’t be all bad.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)

© 2005, Washington Post Writers Group

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