08 August 2008

John Edwards's Self-Criticism

Watching the former senator and erstwhile presidential candidate today, I was reminded of the "self-criticisms" that Communist regimes, particularly Maoist China, required officials to perform when they deviated from the party line, i.e., Mao's will. In the United States, politicians labor under a similar tyranny that requires them to admit themselves to be wicked for doing what countless millions of ordinary citizens also do. What "line" is being enforced? That's hard to say. Your first guess might be conventional morality, the sanctity of marriage, the virtue of fidelity, etc. But on occasions like these you might be as likely to see feminists, often opposed on principle to the self-styled "moral majority," joining in the denunciations. For them, the crime isn't mere infidelity, but the betrayal of women by men. The Edwards story appears to repeat the Clinton archetype, the husband straying from a wife who has become, or always has been, more of a political colleague than a lover, with the added sleaze factor of Edwards cheating on a sick if not moribund mate. A decade ago, Larry Flynt demonstrated that this wasn't a particular failing of Democrats, but many Republicans still pretend that it is.

It's probably as simple as this: if you deceive your wife, won't you deceive the American people? Never mind that there are two different categories of conduct involved; lying is lying, infidelity is infidelity. But do the people who still idolize FDR and JFK today feel that their heroes lied to them by making it appear that they were faithful to their wives? Have they come to believe that either man lied about other things? Even today, Bill Clinton's infidelities haven't broken the strange bond of empathy he shares with many Americans. If people feel that Clinton sold them out, it has little if anything to do with his treatment of the current Senator.

Is Edwards's political career ruined? He's probably disqualified from consideration as Senator Obama's running mate, but should he be considered incompetent for any future political role? He will be to the extent that Americans believe that "character" matters in candidates -- but how much does it matter? The present President's last-ditch supporters still insist that his "decency" and "morality" place him above his predecessor even before we compare policies. But let's grant for argument's sake that all that twelve-stepping has firmed up Bush's moral fiber, and that as a husband his conduct is unimpeachable. For all that, he carried on the selling out of the American economy and sent thousands of Americans to their deaths for no good reason. Morality in the domestic (i.e. marital) sense of the word is no indicator of ethics or political wisdom. Experience should teach us not to write off Edwards. He wasn't running for the office of anybody's spouse, after all, so let him be judged in the future by the qualities appropriate to the job he seeks. If we can get over his unctuous accent, we can forgive other details.

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