John Edwards & honestyAugust 18, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | 4 Comments
Tags: John Edwards, Lionel Shriver
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.