Melinda Henneberger discusses the John Edwards sex scandal.

Melinda Henneberger discusses the John Edwards sex scandal.

Melinda Henneberger discusses the John Edwards sex scandal.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 11 2008 4:49 PM

After the Affair

Melinda Henneberger takes readers' questions about the John Edwards sex scandal.

Slate "XX Factor" blogger Melinda Henneberger was online on Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about the John Edwards sex scandal. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Time and Resources: I somewhat understand the angst about news channels/papers not reporting the Edwards story, but it is mitigated by two things. Firstly, he isn't that important. Yeah, he might have been on the cabinet, but even without the reporting that seemed less likely, so if he is just some random politician without an office, why should the public care?

Secondly, it was an affair. He didn't embezzle; he didn't take money from corporations to vote a certain way; he isn't working with Putin to overthrow some former Soviet republic. Yes, he lied—multiple times—but as I am not voting for him for anything, it isn't all that important. More reporting should be done on Sen. Stevens, not on John Edwards.

Melinda Henneberger: I think that's how a lot of us felt, too, that particularly at a time when resources across the industry are being slashed to the bone, this didn't seem like a high priority. I still think that's true—but I also think John Edwards should have known the story would come out and spared his family and his party the embarrassment—and potentially, the loss of the White House.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: How do you think this—as well as other infidelities committed by politicians—influences the role of political spouse? Despite repeated sexual scandals by politicians, why do you think the image of a supportive political spouse, such as a traditional first lady, continues to be viewed as necessary?

Melinda Henneberger: We in the public really seem to require that tableau that includes a demure wife in chunky pearls, who loves those jokes no matter how many times she's heard them. In fact, we go crazy when a political spouse strays at all from the script—as for instance when Teresa Heinz Kerry dared to mention her first husband, or when Michelle Obama committed the sin of joking about even something as trivial as her husband's failure to put the butter up after breakfast. We made such a fuss in both of those cases that the obvious message to spouses was: For heaven's sake, lie to us!

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Washington: What part of this story is the worst? Cheating on your dying wife, while making your marriage to said dying wife a talking point? Betraying the trust on anyone who donated to or volunteered for your campaign? Denying your children any semblance of a normal family life for the remaining months of their mom's life for a goal you had to know you would get blown away from? Ugh.

Melinda Henneberger: Yes, ugh. But since there's nothing I can do about his decisions, what I'm thinking about are my own choices: When I sat down with Elizabeth and talked to John on the phone for the piece I wrote about them as a couple, should I have asked about the rumors? Was I wrong not to? I drove down to their home in North Carolina, and thought about it and argued with myself all the way there, but kept coming back to: For what? So I can torment a woman with cancer? And, if I had it to do over, I still wouldn't.

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Portland, Ore.: Okay, I don't believe Edwards is telling the truth about when he says told Elizabeth. I think he was caught in and around April 2007, based on information from articles online. That was during the election. Do you believe Elizabeth Edwards fell on her sword and lied about the timeframe when she found out? Looking at her videos when they announced, I just can't believe she knew before then. Are you planning to investigate his truthfulness at all?

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Melinda Henneberger: To me, watching him on Nightline, he looked like a guy who knew the other shoe was gonna hit him on the noggin' any minute. His credibility is shot, and hers too, and that's unbelievably sad.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I strongly resent the idea that "everyone" knew about this affair but nobody reported on it or even bothered to investigate it. Too much work, I guess. Is the newsroom more pleased that this unsavory story was broken by the Enquirer, or that Edwards's campaign faded, so that there was no pressure to break the story? Also, was the fact that this story was lurking have anything to do with the underperformance of the Edwards campaign?

Melinda Henneberger: It's not that simple; the only way these stories ever come out is that either the ex-lover steps to the mic, or tabloids spend months and a lot of money following people, paying for info, bribing hotel employees, etc. At a time when we cannot even act as the watchdogs we are supposed to be because thousands of journalists are losing their jobs as left and right cheer, what I resent is the idea that following John Edwards around should have been Job One; not even close!

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Washington: It seems to me that politicians run on their overall record. I mean really, what does McCain's having been a prisoner of war say about his knowledge and skill as a leader? It's about his personal character. So how does a politician's lying about an affair differ from them lying about their military record? How does Edwards little peccadillo differ from Bush 41's? The press there was that it was only rumor, but then they didn't track it down.

Melinda Henneberger: As I've said before, my old theory was that there were fewer Republican sex scandals because they treated their exes better. But if you look back at Washington sex scandals, the only one I can even ever remember anyone in the non-tabloid media breaking was the Gary Hart story, and that only happened because he double-dared reporters to follow him around. Character issues are important, but we act like sexual fidelity is the only character issue that counts.

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El Segundo, Calif.: Edwards ran on honesty and family values. How can the national political media not vet him properly if he's running for president? Seems like he got a free pass to me. How can we take Edwards or the national media seriously again?

Melinda Henneberger: Are you suggesting that if we put a 24/7 tail on all candidates, if we paid sources and chased people into hotel bathrooms in the middle of the night, then you would take us more seriously? And look at what happened to the New York Times when they ran a story that touched on rumors about a lobbyist John McCain may have been involved with; they had three of their best reporters on that story for months, and yet their efforts were so widely criticized that it worked to the McCain campaign's advantage.

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Boston: Why would you treat a candidate's wife who has cancer differently than one who doesn't have it? The comment makes it clear the Edwards family received special treatment from the media, which is clearly wrong. That's what bothers me most about this story. I especially am appalled by the New York Times, which ran a front-page story on McCain's alleged affair with a lobbyist that had not one shred of evidence ... and still ignored the Edwards story. To be clear, it's not that I necessarily agree with the media delving into candidates' sex lives, but if you're going to do it to one you have to do it to all ... whether or not their spouse suffers from cancer or another tragedy.

Melinda Henneberger: Nope, not true. I talked to Cindy McCain recently and didn't ask her, either—even though, given that it was on the front page of the NYT, I certainly could have. And it isn't as though people in public life are going to respond honestly to such a question anyway. Again, these stories are out there because money has changed hands and people were followed for months. If that's your priority, then the National Enquirer is your news outlet.

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Washington: I say this as an Obama supporter, but why did the New York Times ignore this story while it ran with a fairly sleazy and, presumably, untrue-in-its-innuendo story about John McCain several months ago? I can't understand how they can justify the differences, particularly when this Edwards news was under the radar at approximately the same time they came out with their McCain story.

Melinda Henneberger: I have no idea what they had, but it didn't seem like the story started as hey, let's run down all the sex rumors. It seemed to have been something they ran across while running down a perfectly legit story about whether McCain, who is running against the influence of lobbyists, is himself linked to lobbyists. I'm sure they would have been a lot more comfortable if they'd found he was good friends with a lobbyist named Victor Iseman instead.

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Washington: I vote for no coverage of politicians' sex lives. I don't care who is doing what—if it isn't illegal, don't report it. That's my new standard and I urge the mainstream media to adopt it.

Melinda Henneberger: Not only would I second that, but I think most reporters would. We are not trying to out certain people and protect others based on party or personal affinity; on the contrary, unless it becomes impossible to ignore, either through a lawsuit, like the one Paula Jones filed, or a press conference, like the one Gennifer Flowers held, that is pretty much what happens.

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Washington: In 2007 rumor around DC was that Edwards wasn't so hot on running, and that it was Elizabeth who convinced (pushed?) him to do it. I'm not clear on the timeline, but I do wonder whether on some (hidden) level this could have been an attempt on his part to sabotage a campaign he never really wanted to run. The theory gives Elizabeth more culpability in what happened, and the story becomes a little less one-sided—as these affairs rarely are. What do you think?

Melinda Henneberger: No, he very much wanted to run, and she very much wanted him to.

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Philadelphia: Hello, just wanted to say thanks. I've enjoyed reading your recent posts, and love the XX Factor in general. It's the only blog I read—I wish I could join in!

Melinda Henneberger: Thank you so much!

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Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Melinda, you've hit many nails on the head here. Thank you! But wait, don't you think Elizabeth didn't tell him not to run was because she didn't know about Wily Rielle yet? No self-respecting narcissist would spoil his fun if he didn't have to, would he, especially when there was no danger of being found out? It was, after all, before those "miserable tabloids" started writing their "lies"....

A serious (well, semi-serious) question, too: What do you think are the implications of Hunter refusing to let the kid be tested? She wants to stay the center of attention, and if it's proven not to be Edwards's then who cares? She and Edwards made a pact that he'd say "sure I'll take it" and she'd say "no way Jose" and therefore no one would ever know? What do you think? (Not that it matters, as you point out, of course.)

Melinda Henneberger: I'm not sure we'll ever know what Elizabeth knew and when she knew it, but I have the unhappy feeling she still doesn't know everything.

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Washington: What do you make of Elizabeth's statement that her relapse has made all this easier? I just don't understand that...

Melinda Henneberger: Maybe that everything, even this, is less important than the bigger picture; does an affair negate 31 years? No, thankfully.

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St. Louis: Seriously, John Edwards is no longer relevant as he is not running for anything. If the media is going to talk about "affairs," shouldn't you discuss John McCain's affair, given that he is the presumptive Republican presidential candidate?

Melinda Henneberger: Or, God willing, we could say gosh, this was so much fun, let's never do it again...

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Minneapolis: You debated with yourself about whether it was right for you to ask about the rumors when interviewing Mrs. Edwards and are glad that you did not. Would it have been better for her if you did? Is the way this has come out been any better? I guess the confusion that some may have in the press's role is that every night on the TV you have pundits arguing minute, piddly details, and yet something this large falls off the screen. I think that is where the disconnect comes from.

Melinda Henneberger: Elizabeth Edwards is a damn smart woman, and I guess part of my calculus was that she was not going to tell me anyway. In Candidate Spousery 101 they teach you this line: We don't talk about that! The American people care about ISSUES!

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Austin, Texas: Before this story broke, I thought it was interesting how many people were arguing that the reason people like Larry Craig deserved outing was because he had somehow worked to make life more difficult for homosexuals, so it was right to highlight his personal life. Setting aside the fact that Edwards tended to put his marriage front and center, as an attorney general or a poverty czar, Edwards almost certainly would have worked to make life more difficult for deadbeat dads. Did people (including journalists) lack the imagination to see that particular kind of hypocrisy?

Melinda Henneberger: Honestly, I guess I think we are all hypocrites about this stuff to some degree. We all but make them lie, we demand the mythic storyline, then off with their heads if they don't live up to it. There has got to be a better way!

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West Virginia: The overwhelming emotion I have about this story is sadness. He's not a candidate anymore, so I hate to see his family dragged into this. I even feel sad for John, who probably doesn't deserve it. He's probably had lots of women throwing themselves at him, and he's only human. Even good marriages have their stresses, and who's to judge ... but that's the world we live in today. And for people to judge Elizabeth too ... only they know what goes on in their marriage, and we have to respect it. I understand why the media had to report this story, I just wish they didn't feel they had to.

Melinda Henneberger: Me, too, West Virginia!

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Washington: His wife is dying of a illness that he did not cause or desire. Do dying people have greater rights than others? Is the tyranny of the terminally ill a form of power abuse that we tolerate? If her cancer makes his wife exceptionally miserable to be around, then why must Edwards be held to some standard of sainthood? Women traditionally have divorced men who return from war as permanently disabled heroes. At least he didn't divorce her or flaunt his dalliances. His biggest error was to deny the child ahead of a paternity test.

Melinda Henneberger: You came to the wrong well with this one; Elizabeth as tyrant I am not buying.

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Melinda Henneberger: Thanks for joining the conversation.