The Campaign Spot

John Edwards, a Groundbreaking Innovator in Making Scandals Worse

In today’s Morning Jolt, a reexamination of a political figure that I suspect a lot of folks would like to never see again . . .

John Edwards Crosses Over to Beyond the Pale

I know some folks will look at any mention of John Edwards, and groan and skip ahead, or avert their eyes. Some will think that pointing to the National Enquirer report of his proposal to his former mistress  is somehow in bad taste, or taking glee in the misery that immersed a mourning family.

But I think the sordid tale of Edwards — and how the candidate keeps finding new ways to make it more sordid — is a powerful, useful teachable moment, to both sides of the aisle (although probably more to the Democrats than Republicans).

There’s a saying that when Republicans pick a presidential candidate, they fall in line; when Democrats pick a presidential candidate, they fall in love. The Edwards saga reminds us that while we may think we know the figures we vote for, support, donate to, and volunteer to help elect, we generally don’t really know them. You know your spouse, your family, and your friends. Beyond that, you know the face that someone presents to the world. There’s probably quite a bit of angst, or regret, or pain, or rage, or zaniness or obsessions or any one of a million quirks and traits and secrets behind your neighbor’s pleasant smile. This doesn’t mean that everyone’s a ticking time bomb; it just means we should be cautious before we put anybody up on a pedestal. This particularly applies to the realm of politics, a field that tends to attract the ambitious, the narcissistic, the power hungry, and those who find it hard to resist the notion that they’re “special” and that the rules don’t really apply to them.

I joke on Twitter that “anyone who voted for John Edwards should do penance for their bad judgment by staying home for the next three elections.” (Naturally, this brings out the usual suspects grinding their axes, ‘you should sit out for the rest of your life for voting for war criminal Chimpy McHitlerBuuuuush NEOCON NEOCON NEOCON’ etc.) And that notion doesn’t really apply to everyone who ever voted for Edwards, or everyone who voted for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004. But there were grassroots Democrats, particularly in the 2004 and 2008 cycles, who watched Edwards, went to his rallies, met him, immersed themselves in the world of the candidate . . . and concluded, he was a great guy. They believed in him. They trusted him. They would have bet everything they own that he was a devoted husband and father. Heck, the Father’s Day/Mother’s Day Council Inc. named him “Father of the Year” in 2007, while he was having his affair. I don’t know if they can get it back like Milli Vanilli’s Grammy, but you would like to think that after word of the Hunter affair came to light, and all of the awful details in Andrew Young’s book, they would have sat and pondered and examined how they could have so spectacularly misjudged the character of the man they chose to honor. Perhaps no quote sums up this man more than his remark complaining about “fat rednecks try to shove food down my face. I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?” He loathed the people he sought to lead.

When you misjudge somebody’s character so spectacularly, you don’t really have to stop voting for a few cycles. But you probably ought to reexamine what shaped that erroneous positive assessment. Is it that he told you what you wanted to hear? Were you, in retrospect, too easily impressed by emotional stories, or fake folksy charm? Did you associate the political positions you prefer with good character, when the connection between the two is often more tenuous than we would like to admit?


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