Saturday, August 09, 2008

Say It Ain't So, John

Alas, the mighty have fallen.

The news was released yesterday afternoon that John Edwards engaged in an extramarital affair in 2006 and that he lied about it during his campaign for President last year. Edwards' paramour, Rielle Hunter (who, apparently, is also the inspiration for a Gen-X literary character), now claims that Edwards is the father of her young child, making his very-inconvenient news downright disastrous. And, to add insulting injury to insulting injury, it looks as if Edwards' people might have also doled out a significant amount of hush money to keep the affair under wraps.

Edwards defended himself in the press yesterday by saying that although he was completely and painfully honest with his family about the affair, he was only "99% honest with the public," using the fact that reporters' version of the story included many false details as a way to deny the whole thing. Hmmm... to use a Southernism with which I am sure he is familiar, that dog don't hunt. That dog don't even bark. Hell, that dog barely breathes.

Like most of Edwards' supporters, I'm somewhat disappointed. He always impressed me as a politician who managed to remain above the fray. It is a monumentally bad show of judgment for a father of four children (one who died tragically in an automobile accident) and the husband of a supportive (and cancer-ridden) wife to go skirt-chasing in his mid-fifties. So, yes, shame on him. His judgment was bad, his will was weak, and he erred or sinned or transgressed or whatever you want to call it.

But would I still vote for him as President of the United States? You bet I would.

Let me take a minute to serve as Edwards' apologist-- not an apologist for his affair, which I believe is a matter only between him and his family, but for his lying about it, which is all that does (or should) really matter to the rest of us. The thing is, I don't want politicians who lie to me anymore than the next red-blooded American does, but even more than that, I don't want to permit the possibility of any imperfect human being-- even a politician-- to be forced into a panopticon. Public representatives are surveilled more than the rest of us, as they should be, but there are limits to what we should be allowed to ask them and, consequently, I think there are limits to the disclosures of "truth" we can justifiably expect them to provide. I am more bothered by the fact that the question was asked to Edwards about his sexual activities than I am about the fact that he lied about it. At least he wasn't asked under oath, a small but significant consolation.

One of the drawbacks of our celebrity-obsessed culture is that we in the hoi polloi are led to believe that every personality whose image shows up on our little box is open to unrestricted scrutiny. I'm going to go out on a limb here and speculate that there isn't any one of us who could dodge all of the arrows of that kind of microscopic examination. This puts our public figures in a pickle-- they can't lie, they can't tell the truth, and they most certainly can't say "it's none of your damn business." If I were Elizabeth Edwards, then John Edwards' lie would matter a great deal to me, because it may mean that he is a bad husband. But I'm not her. I'm just a voting American, and John Edwards' lie tells me nothing about what kind of President he might be, save for the fact that he may be a President who makes mistakes, which distinguishes him from all the others in no way whatsoever.

Let me be clear: I am not issuing a blanket excuse for infidelity, which I really do believe is one of the most painful things that one human being can do to another. But I find the self-righteous media circus surrounding Edwards' affair sickening, naive, disingenuous, and grossly exploitative. Did we not learn this lesson back in 1998? It's deja vu all over again.

It'll almost make you lose faith in humanity. Thank god for Zhang Yimou.


anotherpanacea said...

I'm not surprised. Edwards strikes me as exactly the kind of populist who is at least partly motivated by an open erotic affection for people, and when your wife is sick there're fewer acceptable outlets for that passion. This is neither good nor bad, but he's finished as a politician. Last time I checked he's not any sort of politician anyway, so I'm curious why it's even an issue... except perhaps because it allows Democrats to harp on McCain's affairs, and nobody wants to think about a war between Russia and Georgia.

Booga Face said...

OK, I confess, seven years ago, I cheated on my girlfriend. Damn, now I'll never be president.

Actually, I'm going to have to take strong issue with your statement that infidelity is one of the most painful things one human being can do to another. Really? Murder? Rape? Economic exploitation? In my view, the real violence is in the social order that demands a monogymous nuclear family, persecutes people who don't fulfill that role, and demands that we all subscribe to some crackpot theory about true, everlasting love. What a load of horse manure. Why would any sane person want any of that?

I've known people who cheated on their spouses. It's bad, for sure, don't get me wrong, and they all feel that badness, but it's no big thing, it seems to me, unless there are children. That makes the ethical issue much more complicated and deep.

DOCTOR J said...

Booga, I answered you in a whole separate post. You're welcome.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

The real celebrity thing that I fell for with John and Elizabeth both is that I fell for them both personally. I am embarrassed to admit that I am deeply, deeply saddened by this story (as compared with Eliot Spitzer, another politician who I still like qua politician ---- who actually broke the law, but furnished us all with no end of amusement).

I haven't read Dr. J.'s response post (nor will I soon, since I'm way behind on the blogosphere), but I would only partially agree (and probably mostly disagree with) boogaface and partially disagree (and probably mostly agree with) and assert that infidelity can be one of the most painful things that we do to one another, but it depends on the relationship (I've already been called to the carpet earlier for my feelings about the Clintons, but its hard to imagine that they've ever had the sort of marriage where infidelity was a wildly unexpected violation of trust; to say nothing of Leopold and Molly Bloom. I think Kundera wrote somewhere that much of the dynamics of any relationship is established in its early days and I imagine that the relative emotional value of certain acts is established then also. But I am digressing. . .

I totally agree with you Dr. J. that this wouldn't change whether or not I'd vote for him (as Spitzer's shennanigans probably would have).

Nor do I want to defend Edwards, but I do have to give him props on one point. In part of his mea culpa, he said something to the effect of "While running for president I convinced myself that I was special and surrounded myself with people who thought I was special and I become narcissistic and egotistical." Now, as a description of a state of one's psyche that divorces oneself from one's agency, it fits into the exculpatory pattern of meae culpae everywhere. But as a self-description of what must go through the heads of people willing to participate in modern public discourse (as a self-description of the particular quality of hubris in a celebrity-driven world), it seems right on the money.

DOCTOR J said...

Ideas Man,

I completely agree with you about Edwards' "narcissitic and egotistical" self-evaluation. Because I really like the guy, I am inclined to believe that this was a genuine insight on his part and not so much an attempt to manipulate the story. Either way, though, it's probably one of the truest and most enlightened things that has been said in the entire campaign season.