John Edwards & honesty

August 18, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | 4 Comments
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John Edwards by flickr user alexdecarvalho (Creative Commons)

John Edwards by flickr user alexdecarvalho (Creative Commons)

Since all news has a blogging sell-by-date, I’d been resigned to missing out on the chance to pile onto John Edwards during his period of disgrace. Thankfully (for me, if not for you), Lionel Shriver’s Observer piece means I get to regurgitate this sorry story under the guise of ‘commentary’ before it finally falls into the embers of an already overlong campaign.

For Shriver, Edwards’ affair was a misdemeanour grave enough to end his marriage, but not his political career. She rightly notes that in no other profession would someone be held so zealously to account for something that occurred in their private life and that it’s surely preferable to have an efficient President who happens to be a deficient human being rather than the other way around. Putting it more bluntly, she reckons we should set aside whatever strengths or flaws they might possess as people and focus on their strengths or flaws as potential leaders. None of this is particularly quarrelsome; it’s true that the media was always more comfortable portraying the campaign as a personality contest than explaining the difference between Edwards & Obama’s healthcare plans, and it’d be of greater benefit to ordinary voters to know about stuff like that. But the main problem with Shriver’s analysis is that in the case of John Edwards, it’s impossible to separate personality from politics, and much of this was by the candidate’s own design.

One of the subliminal selling-points of Edwards’ candidacy was that he was the ‘safe bet’. Barack Obama was untested, inexperienced, black and born with a Muslim middle name, whilst Hillary Clinton had been a stakeholder in one of the most divisive and melodramatic presidencies of post-war America. When set next to these two talented but flawed candidates, this white, male, telegenic former Senator with the attractive family seemed like the least hazardous choice to lead the Democrats back to the White House. Trouble is, when you market your identity, character & background as one of your own unique selling points, you don’t then get the chance to put a rope-line around the parts which threaten to corrupt that apple pie perfection.

But the most visible merging of the personal & the political was in Edwards’ damascene conversion from the centrist ‘New Democrat’ he was as a Senator to the straight-talking, shoot from the hip, progressive populist he became in the 08 primary. In order to reinvent himself in this way, Edwards had to distance himself from a number of the policies he supported in the Senate, not least the Iraq war. So he took the unusual step of renouncing that vote – along with several others – and in doing so positioned himself as a man who could be honest enough to admit his mistakes. But from the moment the National Enquirer first broke the story about Edwards’ affair, his campaign dismissed all the allegations. When you lie about something as fundamental as ‘did you cheat on your wife?’ voters would’ve been forgiven for thinking whether his political makeover was genuine or not.

If Edwards had avoided playing into the media’s game of personality politics, he might’ve been afforded a modicum of sympathy. Instead, he tended and traded in it, and is therefore not above being ruined by it. But this discussion about whether policies should be more important than personalities misses arguably the most important point; the Democratic voters were never given the chance to decide whether his affair was important or not, as he only belatedly admitted to it many months after withdrawing from the race. Had he admitted to it whilst on the campaign, it’s possible that the voters would’ve accepted his mea culpa and judged him on his policies. Equally, it’s possible that they’d rather not elect another adulterer as their party’s standard-bearer. More likely, it wouldn’t have done much to help or hinder a campaign which was always a long-shot to begin with.

Either way, we can’t bemoan the American public’s preference for personality over political substance when, in this instance at least, they were deprived of the opportunity to make the choice.



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  1. Cheater’s Rap

    John Edwards talked about Dad’s mill,
    While sleeping with a chick off the pill,
    He lied and fibbed to the MS press,
    And, awoke early to preen and dress.

    His wife, Elizabeth, knew the lie in 2006,
    But supported John in Iowa while sick,
    They stole Hillary’s honest votes daily,
    And laughed on cue, and hiding Rielle.

    Why did John lie like a cheatin’ rat ?
    No “New Deal” for the average Democrat,
    While Obama and Hillary fought on the stump,
    John Edwards watched Rielle grow a bump.

    Now John’s love child is common news,
    And Fred Baron has money to lose,
    Rielle, now nursing, has jetted away,
    Even Geraldo has joined the fray!

    John’s affair has hurt his poor kids,
    More than Clinton’s cigars ever did,
    A sordid tale that some call a crock,
    The only winner, a loser named Barack!

    Like dogs in heat, Edwards did pant,
    Defined forever, just like Hugh Grant,
    Tabloids paid to get the sleaze,
    Is it John’s baby, mister please?

    Vote for John Edwards, give me chills,
    Meet you for sex in Beverly Hills,
    John, don’t need to prove you ain’t a gay,
    Just pony up to compare your DNA.

    See Barack in Hawaii like Bobby Vinton,
    Unaware the DNC plans to elect a Clinton,
    Edwards may face time from the tax man,
    But not if a pardon is part of Obama’s plan.

    While Elizabeth cried over her brood,
    Baby mama with John was not a prude,
    Gone the innocent days of Tom Sawyer,
    John gettin’ love like a real trial lawyer.

  2. Andrew Young the admitted father of the John Edwards story: The arrests for worthless checks, DWI, burglary, criminal mischief, the federal tax lien

  3. I’ve often heard various folks comment on how wonderfully varied, complex and diverse the English language is, effortlessly welcoming foreign words and phrases ‘into the fold’. The depth of our language is sometimes described as a ‘bottomless reservoir’ of nuance.

    I agreed with that sentiment, but no longer, thanks to John Edwards. I’ve been struggling the last two weeks for words to describe exactly how much of a douchebag he really is. And sadly, for the first time I find my native tongue wanting. The adjectives simply aren’t ‘there’ to accurately describe how much of a manipulative, calculating, reprehensible, scumbag, liar, phony, narcissistic, empty-suit, jackass he really is.

    See that? My best effort to ‘capture’ the fundamental essence of John Edwards rings completely hollow, like calling the Grand Canyon a ‘really big ravine’. I would otherwise be embarrassed by my linguistic impotence, but I really don’t think it’s my fault. He has simply re-defined the boundaries of douche-baggery, shattering the power of words to define him. It is, in wierd sort of way, a mark of greatness. A legacy, if you will.

  4. All very interesting takes on a scumbag, power hungry a-hole who has no heart.

    Here is another take i found quite humorous:

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