McCain's Annoying Little Fraud
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2. Hypocrisy: Ah, but Bennett was a hypocrite-- a man whose chief claim to national attention was as a sophisticated moral scold who turned out to have a major gambling jones. Edwards is a hypocrite too, in much the same way. Why, after all, was Edwards ever considered presidential material. Is he a great executive? No. A brilliant policy expert? No. An accomplished diplomat? No. He's an ex-Senator with one undistinguished term in office who rose in life on the basis of his singular ability to use tearjerking stories to move juries and win large verdicts . His presidential campaign has featured similarly moving anecdotes, such as the famous 10-year old girl "somewhere in America" who goes to bed "praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today, because she doesn't have the coat to keep her warm."
Edwards' most effective anecdote this year, however, was probably the story of his popular wife Elizabeths' struggle against cancer. He made it the emotional center of a TV ad:
And Elizabeth and I decided in the quiet of a hospital room, after 12 hours of tests and after getting very bad news, what we were going to spend our lives doing. For all those that have no voice. We are not going to quietly go away.
During a joint 60 Minutes interview focusing on his wife's illness, Edwards explicitly linked his behavior in that struggle and his fitness for public office:
Some have suggested that you're capitalizing on this.
Here's what I would say about that.
First of all, there's not a single person in America that should vote for me because Elizabeth has cancer. Not a one. ..[snip]
But, I think every single candidate for president, Republican and Democratic have lives, personal lives, that indicate something about what kind of human being they are. And I think it is a fair evaluation for America to engage in to look at what kind of human beings each of us are, and what kind of president we'd make. [E.A.]
3. Relevance: If a politician is a great executive, thinker or diplomat who cheats on his brave, ill wife, you figure, "OK, We're not hiring him because of his sterling private behavior." If a politician whose chief appeal is his self-advertised loyalty to his brave, ill wife cheats on his brave ill wife, what's he good for again? And if Edwards' crucial talent as a public official is his ability to move people with tearjerky anecdotes, and those anecdotes (like the tale of his spousal loyalty, or the girl with no coat, or the anecdote that reportedly made John Kerry queasy about him)--turn out to be BS or half BS, that's more than random hypocrisy, It goes to the core of what he does and what he claims to offer. (I'd also argue that an emotional, anecdote-led liberal approach to poverty inevitably tends toward the failed solution of simply sending poor people cash welfare, but that's another argument.)
4. Irresponsibility: How irresponsible was it to seek the party's nomination knowing that this scandal was lurking around, ready to explode? What if he'd won? Are we sure it wouldn't have been discovered by the McCain campaign before November? Rock stars get to behave this badly because they're only rock stars. Worst that happens is the band breaks up. What if Edwards actually got elected--and then the scandal was discovered when he was in office? Did Democrats enjoy the Lewinsky years?
5. The Coverup:If the scandal is true, it almost certainly means that during the campaign Edwards presided over an elaborate coverup involving at least a) having an aide wrongly claim paternity and b) having other aides go out and lie to reporters. It probably also included payments of money to cooperating parties and various familiar slurs on the character of the 'other woman,' Rielle Hunter. All this would obviously be germane to Edwards' fitness to hold any office, including clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Even if Edwards were to forswear all future public employment, there'd be an interest in documenting and publicizing his role in the coverup for the same reason we track down bank robbers 10 years after the crime--to deter others from pulling the same stunt in the future.
The only legitimate reason not to cover this scandal, it seems to me, is simple sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards--and I've gotten enough emails from anguished and angry members of the MSM to conclude, with Estrich, that it's the prime reason for the MSM blackout. True, I also suspect that if Mrs. Edwards were a conservative Republican, or even an unbeloved Democrat, the MSM might somehow find a way to overcome this compassionate sentiment. But that doesn't make it wrong. Reporters don't have to print everything. You could conclude that the need to protect Mrs. Edwards her children is so great, the karma of Enquiring so bad, that all of the obvious, public-interesty reasons for covering the story should be thrown out the window. And if John Edwards were already so damaged that in practice he'd never get a significant public office even if he wants one, I might agree (even if that meant sacrificing the deterrent effect of full exposure).
But that's a point that clearly hasn't been reached yet, at least not while most Americans are being kept in the dark about what, exactly, has led to Edwards' mysterious disappearance from the political oddsmakers' charts. A man arrogant and ambitious enough to think he can run for president posing as a loyal husband while keeping his second family secret, even as he visits his mistress in a famous hotel that is hosting a convention of journalists, will be arrogant and ambitious enough to keep hiding under the shield of his wife's illness until he can attempt a comeback-- if given the chance.
The alternative, it seems to me, is to let affection for Mrs. Edwards suck journalists into a Print-the-Legend world where they must spend their time burnishing--or at least accepting--the story powerful people and institutions want them to tell, the story of the wonderful Edwards marriage, rather than figuring out and telling readers the truth. If I wanted to be in that business I'd be a publicist.
Photograph of John McCain on the Slate home page by Alex Wong/Getty Images.