Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Edwards Affair

Crooks and Liars provided a roundup of reactions to the Edwards affair Friday night. I found myself agreeing quite a bit both with Digby:

I realize that everybody gets excited about sex scandals. It's human nature. But it's important to keep in mind that John Edwards didn't even come close to winning the nomination and this is just another sleazy tabloid story with absolutely no serious significance other than the sickening spectacle of the prurient slavering of the mainstream media now that they have finally found their hook: it's because he lied to the press about his sex life. How could he???

(Lying to the press about the anthrax killer and WMD in Iraq, well, not a problem.)

Let's assume that the rules now say that denying an affair to the press is a cardinal offense that merits endless bloviating about dishonesty from a bunch of hypocritical celebrities who protect their "sources" when they lie about torture and war. Fine...

...And with Atrios:

The public: Edwards was a fucking idiot for running for president, and betrayed a lot of his supporters by doing so.

The private: everything else is between Edwards and his family. Not for the rest of us to figure out how this is supposed to affect their relationships and their marriage.

Honestly, I felt, feel, disappointed. Generally, I don't care much about public figures having affairs. Having an affair isn't a kind thing to do, but it's fairly common, marriages are complicated, and history shows that marital fidelity and the ability to govern have no correlation. But this was reckless, and Edwards has been one of handful of politicians I've actually liked. Elizabeth Edwards is pretty awesome. I wasn't happy to hear the news.

However, I still think John Edwards' "Two Americas" is one of the best political stump speeches I've heard in the past ten years or so. It starts with a quite scathing – and accurate – critique of the problems in America, and combines that with a fighting, optimistic resolve to fix them. Edwards' policies were among the best, or were the best, of all the primary candidates. His presence in the primaries and the debates pushed the discussions in a progressive direction. He released a detailed health care plan early, along with a proposal to pay for it, that forced other candidates to outline their own. (Well, on the Democratic side, at least, since some of the Republican plans basically amounted to "Pray you don't get sick."). Poverty is not a sexy cause. Unions, workers' rights, health care, are all extremely important causes that don't get enough lip service, let alone action. As we covered in "Where's John?" (and should come as little surprise to political junkies) John Edwards received the least and worst coverage of any major candidate. The Politico ran countless stories on his friggin' haircuts (four in one week alone, if I remember correctly), while ignoring his policies (although in general, they've ignored policies).

I'd kept a certain wariness toward Edwards due to his AUMF vote in 2002, and he let Cheney get away with lying to his face in the VP debate in 2004. I could see the manner he sometimes showed that made others dub him a phony, but most of that seemed to me more like the standard gamesmanship necessary to politics. (Even at his worst, he's never been anywhere close to Mitt Romney, who as Harold Meyerson put it, "approaches the Platonic Ideal of Inauthenticity," whose bald-faced lies were inherently condescending and whose policies were mostly lousy.) With Edwards, as with other politicians, on a certain level I never really cared whether he was "sincere" or not. His apology on his AUMF vote, late though it was, came off as pretty sincere, but even if it wasn't, he spoke out so much on Iraq and Iran that he had made a brand of opposing unnecessary war. He'd suffer politically if he reneged on those stands, and he knew it. Machiavelli cuts both ways, and I hold that it's better that politicians fear the voters' wrath than trust that politicians will do the right thing because they love us. As Brad of Sadly, No's written a few times, politicians are tools for change, and it can be dangerous to look to them for anything more.

There was also an early debate where Obama criticized Edwards for getting it wrong on Iraq, and rather than firing back some variation on the 'easy for you to say, you didn't have to make that call,' Edwards said, you were right, and it's to your credit. It was rather extraordinary. Meanwhile, while I'd say Edwards got in a few sly digs, he played the debates fairly clean, often saying some variation on, 'that's a legitimate point of view, but we do have differences.' I also never saw him echo and validate the most dangerous Orwellian bullshit of Bush, Giuliani and the gang. On the trail and in at least some of the debates, he took it on directly. He dropped out of the race before "Super Tuesday" when it became clear that despite some respectable showings he was unlikely to win a primary. He waited a long time to endorse one of the remaining candidates (even if that endorsement didn't make some people happy).

Again, I really don't care much about politicians having affairs, unless they're using public funds to do it, or go around moralizing to everyone, gay-bashing, maybe opposing comprehensive sex ed. I don't remember Edwards doing a lot of that sort of moralizing. His moral critiques were mostly about corporate misdeeds and abuses of power by the Bush administration. His family and marriage were part of his public image, to be sure, but his campaign had an American dream-populism message, as opposed to Bush in 2000, with his righteous bullshit about promising to restore honor and dignity to the White House by virtue of his fidelity and upstanding character (never mind his belligerent ignorance and incompetence). Katie Couric actually pressed all the candidates in December on the issue of infidelity. Read the whole (short) thing, but I thought this was the key section of her interview with Edwards:

COURIC: So how important do you think [infidelity] is in the grand scheme of things?

EDWARDS: I think the most important qualities in a president in today's world are trustworthiness-- sincerity, honesty, strength of leadership. And-- and certainly that goes to a part of that. It's not the whole thing. But it goes to a part of it.

COURIC: So you think it's-- an appropriate way to judge a candidate?

EDWARDS: Yeah. But I don't think it's controlling. I mean, I think that, as you point out, there have been American presidents that at least according to the-- to the stories we've all heard-- that were not faithful, that were in fact good presidents. So I don't think it controls the issue. But I think it's certain-- something reasonable for people to consider.

I remember reading at least one claim at the time that Edwards' response was a swipe at Bill Clinton, although actually, it's more of a defense of him. Most of the rest I took to be the unremarkable politician's move of not chastising scandalized voters for being upset over whatever's scandalized them. He said infidelity wasn't "controlling." But yeah, it's fair to say that Edwards said it's fair to criticize him on this point.

In any case, you can see Edwards' entire interview with ABC here, or at ABC (annoyingly, they'd previously posted only short clips of what they considered the headlines). Judge for yourself. There are sections where he's obviously holding back. I understand not going into prurient detail, but I think it hurt him a bit not to say the month and year the affair started and ended. On the other hand, he's pretty blunt on the arrogance and narcissism angle, and I was grateful he didn't have Elizabeth there during the whole thing. (Eliot Spitzer's poor wife is the most recent example of a woman subjected to that gruesome public ritual).

If you missed it, you can read Elizabeth Edwards' statement here. She's known about the affair since 2006, they've gone through their process, and she's forgiven him. Given that, it seems silly to be angry on her behalf over the personal, private side of this. It's their marriage.

Reading over her statement, it reminds me yet again that, unless an affair has some direct bearing on the politician's conduct, policies or rhetoric, it really just shouldn't matter. Infidelity is pretty damn common. But we still have some very puritanical elements in our society. Out here in Los Angeles, it was frankly refreshing that there wasn't a huge public uproar over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa having another affair. (Maybe it's also that the city and state are troubled enough that umbrage seems like a luxury, while with Clinton and Gore versus Bush, where the country was doing pretty well overall, the naïve attitude toward Bush – at least from the press – was, "How bad can he be?")

The problem, though, for Edwards, is that in our current society, in our current political climate, with the GOP and the press operating the way they do, such things do matter. I understand the shame and the desire to keep something like this secret. If Edwards hadn't been running for office, it wouldn't matter. But admitting to the affair publicly before (or shortly after) starting his run for president was a necessary price of admission to the race. Such news is just too much of a political bombshell in today's landscape. Realistically, it would have hurt Edwards' chances, although I think he still might have made a decent showing... although it's rather moot now.

Like I said, I'm disappointed. I'm most of all disappointed that some liberal or populist causes might be temporarily hurt by this. I'm disappointed because Edwards was an effective spokesman for those causes, some like fighting poverty are important but unpopular, and this hurts his reputation. I don't blame those who feel this story's utterly trivial, but nor do I blame those who feel a (sincere rather than feigned) sense of betrayal or anger. I also think the folks lambasting those who are upset should grant them a day, a weekend, a week to be upset. This came as a shock to quite a few people, and certainly plenty of liberals did or do like John and Elizabeth Edwards. When I heard the rumors and that the National Enquirer was involved, I thought the charges was preposterous. And it bears noting that there was some very irresponsible "reporting" going on, with allegations reported as fact. But part of the story was true. I think this revelation was or is for some people emotionally sorta what Clinton's affair was for others back in the 90s. As Digby pointed out, Edwards wasn't even the nominee, so the stakes were/are much lower, and there are other glaring differences. But emotions are funny things.

It's not a terribly important story in the grand scheme of things, but I've had enough conversations about this that I thought should write a quick post on it (and will cover the press reaction in the next one, since some coverage on this story has been predictably preposterous).

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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