Back in June 2007, the three leading Democratic candidates participated in a CNN forum on faith. It wasn’t a debate—the candidates appeared onstage separately, and each one answered a different set of questions. Things felt more relaxed than usual. At the time, John Edwards’ answer to a question about sin sounded refreshingly candid. In retrospect, not so much. From the transcript :
O'BRIEN: Senator, I'm going to have you sit while I ask you another question, if you don't mind. Thank you. And while this is not exactly a confessional, there are a whole bunch of people out there—we certainly have enough clergy here—so I'll ask you this. What is the biggest sin ...
EDWARDS: I don't like the way this has started.
O'BRIEN: I know, sorry.
What is the biggest sin you've ever committed? Are you willing—are you willing to say? You can take a pass, sir, as you know.
EDWARDS: Just between you and me?
O'BRIEN: Just between you and me and the 1,300 people in the crowd.
EDWARDS: I'd have a very hard time telling you one thing, one specific sin.
If I've had a day—I turn 54 years old this Sunday—and if I've had a day in my 54 years where I haven't sinned multiple times, I would be amazed. I believe I have. I sin every single day. We are all sinners. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask for forgiveness from the Lord. I can't—to try to identify one particular sin that was worse or more extreme than the others, the list is too long.
O'BRIEN: I was going to say, it sounds like you're saying it's a long list. Senator John Edwards, it's nice to have you talk to us today. Our 15 minutes is up. Thank you so much.
Looking back, his answer sounds shifty. How, as his mind raced, could he
have thought of Rielle Hunter? But it also highlights a paradox of all this humble talk among politicians about their "
." It's okay for a candidate to admit he sins multiple times a day in the abstract. But the moment the sins become concrete, he's pummeled for it. "Sin" covers everything from eating too many fries to murder. That's why it's such an easy question to ask and to answer. It sets up the faux-humble "forgive me, I'm human" rhetoric we hear on the campaign trail. But when things get specific—think Jimmy Carter admitting "I have lusted in my heart"—people get squeamish. When things get
I have lusted in a Radisson hotel
—that's when the punishment begins.