Everybody had a good laugh last August when Roll Call broke the story about Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, getting arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for playing footsies in a toilet stall. The late-night talk show hosts mined the material for days; Slate produced a re-enactment of the bathroom ballet; and newspapers, magazines, and cable channels shredded Craig.
The angle taken by most reporters and commentators wasn't that Craig's restroom conduct was particularly shameful. The press doesn't object to same-sex sex at all, nor should it. Craig's true offense, said the press and the clowns, was hypocrisy, which they consider an inexcusable crime. Craig had supported both federal and Idaho bans on same-sex marriage, had opposed hate crime legislation that would extend protections to gays, and had earned a perfect 0 rating (PDF) from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobby. And he had denied and denied any and all gayness while trying to recruit some action in a bathroom!
Although the Craig story and the John Edwards story, currently unfolding thanks to the National Enquirer,aren't directly analogous, they have a bit in common. Edwards, too, may be a sex hypocrite. The tabloid called Edwards a cheater last October and the father of a love child in December, and last night the Enquirer posted a story about Edwards' visit to his alleged mistress and child at the Beverly Hilton on Monday night.
When the original Enquirer story about the affair with Rielle Hunter came out, Edwards categorically denied the relationship, stating: "The story is false. It's completely untrue, ridiculous." As he rejected the Enquirer's charges, Edwards was making his wife and their marriage a central component of his campaign. If Edwards had had no affair, he wasn't a hypocrite, not then and not now.
But if Edwards had an affair and lied about it, shouldn't he suffer scrutiny akin to that of Craig? At least three-dozen daily newspapers in the United States published the Craig news the day after the Roll Call scoop, according to Nexis, but this morning not a single U.S. daily mentioned the Enquirer piece.
Now, as I've already said, the two stories aren't completely analogous. A cop charged Craig with a misdemeanor, and he pleaded guilty. There's no denying the police blotter is always news, and there's no denying that Craig deserved the hypocrisy scrutiny. Edwards, as far as we know, is guilty of nothing beyond running away from tabloid reporters in a Beverly Hills hotel stairway in the wee a.m. after visiting a female friend in her room. Also, all of the Enquirer's published "evidence" of an Edwards affair comes from unnamed sources. And I should mention that an Edwards political operative, Andrew Young, claims that he is the father of Hunter's child. (Young is married with children of his own.)
Yet, if the press craves consistency, it owes its readers some sort of assessment of Edwards. Is he, like Craig, a public hypocrite? Edwards is still very much a public figure. As Drudge notes today on his site, as recently as June the Associated Press reported that he was a vice presidential short-lister.
If Edwards had no affair and fathered no love child, it should be easy to erase the hypocrisy charge, and the press owes him that, pronto. If we give Edwards the benefit of the doubt, which he deserves, visiting the woman who recently gave birth to the out-of-wedlock child of a married campaign aide is completely OK. But meeting her at a Beverly Hills hotel in the early hours of the morning and running from tabloid reporters when approached and hiding in a hotel bathroom for 15 minutes, as the Enquirer reports Edwards did, is not completely OK. Not if he wants to avoid the hypocrite label.
So why hasn't the press commented on the story yet? Is it because it broke too late yesterday afternoon, and news organizations want to investigate it for themselves before writing about it? Or are they observing a double standard that says homo-hypocrisy is indefensible but that hetero-hypocrisy deserves an automatic bye?
That's my sense. Consider how the press treated Jesse Jackson when he admitted to having fathered a daughter outside of his marriage. The baby arrived in 1999, but Jackson didn't go public about it until 2001, after the National Enquirer scheduled its story about the little girl and her mother. Jackson, who loves preaching to others about their morality, suffered less than two seconds of opprobrium from the press after his admission.
It's hard to top Jackson for hypocrisy. In late 1998, while Karin Stanford was carrying the reverend's child, the two visited President Bill Clinton in the White House. Bill was "recovering" from the Lewinsky scandal, and Jesse was there to "counsel" him.
The most recent Enquirer story reads like a treatment for a screwball comedy, with Cary Grant playing the role of Edwards. Who should play Hunter? Young? The Enquirer reporters? Send casting suggestions to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Edwards in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.