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01.21.10

I Just Can't Hate John Edwards

Yes, he lied, and lied about the lying, and there's a kid involved. But is he really that much worse than Rudy Giuliani and the roll call of other wayward American pols?

Not a lot of people are feeling sorry for John Edwards today. Let me see if I can muster up a case. Yes, Edwards cheated on his wife who had cancer at the time. Yes, he lied about it when he was caught. Yes, he lied about it again when she was found to be pregnant and had the child. And yes, he lied one more time after being caught by a tabloid photographer with said woman and the child he sired. And oh, he paid a loyal staffer to pretend that he was the dad, too, thereby ensnaring yet another innocent in his web of lies.

Thing is, if adultery is going to happen, then lying is a given. It’s the rare marriage that allows one partner to enjoy sex outside of marriage without doing one’s spouse the favor of lying about it. Cheating and lying: They go together like, well, love and marriage.

Asked to speculate as to why Edwards was dumb enough to risk his entire presidential campaign to have sex with an apparently unstable woman, the staffer responds: “I think because she was nice to him.”

John Edwards cheated on Elizabeth Edwards with Rielle Hunter and fathered a daughter, whose paternity he has now, finally, admitted. Edwards’ political career is as over as the Macarena. But why, exactly? It’s not as if we don’t allow our politicians their affairs. John McCain cheated on his ex-wife with his current wife. Ditto Rudy Giuliani. Newt Gingrich did it twice, forcing his first wife to go on the equivalent of church Welfare just to feed her family. Do I even need to say the words “Bill Clinton,” or “Ted Kennedy,” much less the all-time heavyweight champion, “John F. Kennedy?” I could go on. Come to think of it, those who kept it in their pants outside the marital bedroom look more and more like the outliers here.

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So why are we all agreed on our disgust for John Edwards today? Well, there’s the kid, of course, but should Edwards really shoulder all of the blame here? Nobody knows except the two of them, obviously, but it’s a stretch even by the tawdry standards of this story to imagine that he could have had any interest in purposeful procreation. On the Edwards staff, where fear and loathing of Ms. Hunter ran deep, at least one working hypothesis held that Hunter not only captured the candidate’s heart but also sabotaged his campaign by leaking the story to the Enquirer and then setting up her lover to be photographed in secret assignation with her and the child. In her mind, goes the argument, his White House hopes dashed, John would be free to leave Elizabeth and join his new family.

This was the view of one ex-Edwards staffer to whom I spoke on the day the smarmy little bastard finally came clean. From the standpoint of the Edwards presidential campaign, the candidate may or may not have been sleeping with Hunter before the election got under way, but she had been let go by Edwards’ political action committee—for whom she worked—as opposed to the campaign. Given the never-ending horror show they witnessed as the Edwards’ marriage, few inside the presidential campaign were shocked when they heard the rumors. But Edwards promised everyone up and down that the rumors of a continuing affair were untrue. When Hunter went public with the affair, John and Elizabeth called these same staffers and together the two called her a liar, insisting that Andrew Young had privately confessed of his own affair. Given how much each had already invested in their candidate, what choice did they have but to believe him?

This appeared to make sense at the time. As one ex-Edwards staffer explained to me, “John gave us his word. No one saw her around, No one saw them together. The few times she was there, she seemed crazy and psychotic; she was inappropriate with every man who entered the room. I thought, ‘Boy, this woman is a fruitcake.’ And don’t forget, there are literally rumors about sex in every political campaign. Around the same time, one of the tabloids was peddling a story that Obama was gay because of that photo with his shirt off.”

Asked to speculate as to why Edwards was dumb enough to risk his entire presidential campaign to have sex with an apparently unstable woman, the staffer responds: “I think because she was nice to him. He was in a deeply unhappy marriage. He had lost a child. Elizabeth was just getting meaner and meaner. This is one reason there hasn’t been more anger from the staff upon learning of how he deceived us. We saw both sides of this relationship.”

Personally, I find this story too distasteful to delve too deeply into it. John Edwards displayed a degree of arrogance that would qualify him to play guitar in Led Zeppelin, if he could play guitar. Elizabeth Edwards does appear to have been—and I’m going for understatement here—hardly the secular saint sold to us by the campaign. (Though to be fair, who among us knows how we would handle the burdens of a lost child, a battle with cancer, a presidential campaign, [and unlike almost everybody else involved in this race], a deep personal commitment to the political issues at stake.

So back to the beginning. Of course John Edwards was a shit for refusing to admit paternity and trying to fob it off on his friend. And yes, he was a dope for screwing around while running for president in the first place. And Elizabeth was wrong for helping to enable those lies, whatever her motivation. (And as an aside, and even in spite of everything, let me say “Thank God for Barack Obama” for replacing Edwards as the only credible alternative to Hillary. If ever the best person won….) But what exactly is so horrible about Edwards compared to say John, Rudy, Bill, etc.? Is it the fact that he did it after we all went through the Clinton mess? Is it that he denied the child was his? Is it that he chose so badly (again, after Clinton did)?

Whatever it was, we may still allow ourselves perhaps an ounce of compassion for both Edwards, and quite a bit more for this unlucky child and move onto more high-minded matters, like the newest senator from Massachusetts… the one with the naked Cosmo centerfold.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.