Politics & Policy

Who Are We, People?

In defense of John Edwards.

‘I’d be happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.” So then-Time magazine reporter Nina Burleigh announced in an invitation to then-president Bill Clinton in 1998.

Today, Nina Burleigh is the author of an emotional, sympathetic People magazine cover piece on cancer-stricken Elizabeth Edwards’s pain as she faces the public revelation that her husband cheated on her.

The reaction of the American Left to John Edwards’s sex scandal is nothing short of flabbergasting. Since when is sex outside of marriage a disqualifier for merely speaking at a political convention? Since when is having sexual relations with that woman in your office anything wrong? Since when do we judge?

The difference here seems to be that Elizabeth Edwards has cancer. So only fatal disease makes the bonds of marriage sacred?

Although the last thing I want to look to be doing is making excuses for adultery — what he did was wrong — the John Edwards incident begs Americans to look in the mirror. If we think what John Edwards did with Rielle Hunter is wrong, why do we think it’s wrong? Because marriage is at the foundation of our society and we should do what we can to protect every last one? Or simply because having fun while your wife is fighting a fatal disease is a lousy thing to do?

I don’t know how we can condemn John Edwards when Americans have been known to cheer for cheaters in movies, watch celebs do it all the time as a form of perverse entertainment, and even insist we’re not sure what exactly “marriage” means.

When asked “How could you have done this?” John Edwards replied, in part: “Ego. Self-focus, self-importance. Now, I was slapped down to the ground when my son Wade died in 1996, in April of 1996. But then after that I ran for the Senate and I got elected to the Senate and here we go again, it’s the same old thing again. Adulation, respect, admiration. Then I went from being a senator, a young senator to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice-presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences.”

And what he wanted was sex. How can you blame him? After all, what else is there? Look around, the desire for sex dominates much of our culture, from Gossip Girl to Sex and the City, and often there are no real devastating consequences. Not even Billy Ray Cyrus — my heart goes achy breaky — can manage to protect his daughter from premature sexual exposure. Sex, often Pill-fully free of traditional and moral rules and expectations, is at the very center of American life. Why should we expect John Edwards to rein in his desires when people we know — ordinary folks — watch porn, read Playboy, and take their wedding rings off when it’s convenient? When we call marriage “sacred,” but don’t take a stand as judges threaten to redefine it? In our daily lives and in our culture, we’re not all that much better than John Edwards. So why should he be better than us?

We should, of course, want to be better. We should teach our young men to respect themselves and the women — and children — in their lives enough not to stray. We should teach our young men and women that marriage is, in fact, a special and sacred thing — between a man and a woman — and not a simple continuation of shacking up.

But until we express our disapproval of our kids’ cohabitation; until we stop pretending condoms are the only way to prevent teen pregnancy; until we stop ignoring how birth control hurts men and women in their relationships — who are we to ostracize John Edwards? Do we hate him because he’s an opportunistic trial lawyer? Breaking news: We knew that already. The new news only tells us he’s human, with human desires like everyone else. Now what are we going to do about that? Look at our own homes. Look at our society. In our families, in our churches, among friends, in our real everyday worlds, are we looking out for every potential John Edwards? Look to prevent the next John Edwards, a powerful guy in a tough situation who turns to sex as his comfort, even if it means betraying his family. Otherwise, we’re as bad as we say he is.

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

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