Update & Bump: AOL’s Hot Seat used my question a couple of days late, so I’m sending this post back to the top:
Original post follows ….
After all, other politicians have survived the exposure of adulterous affairs. Can John Edwards survive his? Should adultery in and of itself disqualify people from political office, electoral or appointed, and does the Edwards case represent an extreme with no hope of political redemption?
First, let’s tackle the general question of infidelity and political office. We can assume that politicians as a class commit infidelities at least at the same general rate as the rest of the population, and perhaps even greater than that, given the expanded opportunities afforded them. Obviously, this becomes more of a risk at higher levels of politics, but the truth is that we elect human beings to office, and not saints — as Congress reminds us in so many ways. Is it really any of our business what they do outside of working hours?
Some, of course, can’t separate the two. Bill Clinton seduced a starry-eyed intern more than 30 years his junior and committed perjury to cover up the affair, as well as Vernon Jordan’s attempts to buy her off with a job at Revlon, much as investigators believed Clinton got Webb Hubbell to quit cooperating with them. Edwards’ case is similar; his paramour, Rielle Hunter, worked for the campaign, and apparently received money from campaign officials afterwards, which certainly suggests someone wanted her to keep quiet. (The self-admitted father of the child also received stipends, which suggests that Edwards and/or his staff wanted him happy as well.)
We’ll get back to that in a minute. Under normal circumstances, should infidelity be a disqualifier? Shaun Mullen makes the character argument at TMV today:
Political bloggers who say that they could care less about the affair and write stuff like “it’s time for Americans to grow up” need to do some maturing themselves because they’re giving politicians in general and adulterous politicians in particular a big fat free pass to obfuscate and lie at will.
Like Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer, among many other pols before him, Edwards showed a narcissistic and impulsive streak that blinded him to the recklessness and even danger of his actions. I tried hard to like Edwards because he was one of the very few people willing to address poverty in America, but what if he had become the nominee or even president?
It’s a fair question. If a politician proves unfaithful in his most personal relationship, what’s to say he/she won’t sell out constituents for power, money, fame, or more adultery? Clinton’s appetites supposedly grew so large that he feared admitting anything for the deluge that would follow.
But Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton committed actual crimes connected with their infidelities, it should be pointed out. Perjury is a felony and resulted in Clinton’s impeachment and disbarment, although not a conviction in the Senate. Spitzer was even worse, hypocritically launching crusades against prostitution rings for political gain while patronizing high-priced prostitutes at the same time. These were not private matters but public betrayals of office in both cases.
Shaun picked one example that I considered in the discussion of this topic when the story broke during my show yesterday. Gary Hart dropped out of the 1988 presidential race after his affair with Donna Rice got exposed, following a foolish challenge to reporters about rumors of infidelity in 1987. However, Hart recovered enough to regain a position as an elder statesman, politically. Hart retained enough respect that he could have run for office again, had he chosen to do so. (See Update II.)
Could Edwards do the same? I rather doubt it, although it’s probably too soon to tell. Edwards had nowhere near the time in politics that Hart had, and nowhere near the same amount of real accomplishment and respect. Hart’s affair didn’t have anywhere the same amount of messiness as does the Edwards-Hunter relationship, either.
But it’s more than that. In listening to Edwards and following Allahpundit’s excellent coverage yesterday, I doubt anyone thinks that we got the whole story. If the affair ended in 2006, why was Edwards skulking around a hotel in LA where Hunter was staying with the baby in 2008, especially at 2 in the morning? That certainly indicates that Edwards and Hunter had some kind of ongoing relationship, and not one terribly compatible with monogamous marriage. Edwards’ assertion that he “never loved” Hunter sounded cruel and tawdry, as though he wanted to publicly state that all he did was exploit Hunter for a little pleasure.
It sounds like we heard from a lawyer, a spin team, a mouthpiece — not a real human being.
That still leaves us with the question: should we demand loyalty oaths from politicians not just to the Constitution, but also to their spouses? And should the media get in the business of tracking them down to ensure that they remain faithful? Is it really any of our business when it has nothing to do with the job? Do we demand the same of our bosses, our employees, our friends — and the media, for that matter?
Perhaps the most practical answer is a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; as long as we don’t find out about it, it remains none of our business. Once it’s out in the open, we have to consider it as a character flaw.
Update: Gail Collins gets close to the Hart/Edwards difference in this New York Times column, which excoriates Edwards in a manner which indicates that his political resurrection may never arrive among his former friends on the Left:
Unable to deny any longer that he had had an affair with a campaign worker, he insisted on parsing. It was all a mistake. If she was paid off, it wasn’t my money. And, in what may be a new high in the annals of weaseldom: my wife’s cancer was in remission. …
He had no idea why his national finance chairman has been funneling payments to his ex-mistress, and he was apparently never tempted to pick up the phone to ask. His 2 a.m. visit with the woman, Rielle Hunter, at a Beverly Hills hotel last month was a secret mission to keep her from going public about their liaison, the briefness and meaninglessness of which cannot be stressed too often. And he has no idea what baby that was in The National Enquirer picture. …
If Edwards’s political career is toast, it will be because he has always seemed to be less than a sum of his parts: the position papers, the “Two Americas,” the photogenic grin, the supersmart wife. The only piece of the package that consistently disappointed was the man himself. He wasn’t a very good running mate for John Kerry, and as a presidential candidate, he always struck me as being about 2 inches deep.
Perhaps a better way of expressing this is that Edwards was never a good candidate for high office for many reasons. Rather than the Hunter affair ruining him, it revealed him. The man called Silky Pony by his detractors, Collins admits, more or less earned that monicker with his lack of depth.
A better man could rise from the ashes, such as a Gary Hart. But a better man wouldn’t have put himself in this particular position, and reacted so poorly to it.
Update II: Originally, I wrote that Hart had been exposed in the 1984 cycle, which is incorrect. Several people e-mailed and commented correctly that Hart’s affair came to light in 1987, when he was expected to ascend to the nomination easily, until his candidacy sunk over the Monkey Business story. I regret the error.