One of the more peculiar contradictions of American politics is that liberals, who are constantly scolding conservatives for being moral scolds, pounce with glee whenever one of their own is caught in flagrante. It was not surprising that conservatives tore Bill Clinton to pieces during the Lewinsky scandal; it was good politics to do so. What was shocking was the spectacle of liberals doing it, too. And for any journalist aware of the untidy private lives of some of the liberal pundits solemnly pronouncing on Clinton’s selfishness and vanity and uncontrollable libido, it was comically embarrassing as well.
Conservatives, on the other hand, stay mum when it’s a question of one of their own being discovered with his pants around his ankles. Liberals might squawk that it’s just this type of behavior on the part of the family-values party that distinguishes liberal authenticity from conservative fakery, but they miss the larger point. It’s just this type of solidarity that distinguishes political winners from political losers.
Rational, skeptical, secular liberals treat personal failure as a form of incurable leprosy.
Think of it like this. There were more than a few voters who looked at Larry Craig getting caught trying to pick up another man in a public restroom, thought back to his censure of Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, and shrugged. They didn’t see the personal hypocrisy of a randy man condemning another randy man. They saw the political expedience of a randy man condemning another randy man.
The conservatives’ tight-lipped team spirit when it comes to personal fallibility implies an accurate grasp of the way life is. For one thing, such unwillingness to denounce other people for their moral shortcomings—that is, when denouncing them is not made necessary by political expedience—is an acknowledgment that the ego is just as corruptible as the groin. As priggish liberals do not seem able to learn, condemning other liberals for their moral lapses is not a more authentic response; it is simply a response that is more gratifying to the ego. With regard to Edwards, it is incredible to witness the lengths people will go to in order to denounce him. “What if he had won!” they cry. “He would have betrayed all the people who worked for him and voted for him!” Well, for one thing, he made certain that he wouldn’t win. For another, if he had won, you probably would never have heard anything about Rielle Hunter. Do you think every president entered the White House free of closet skeletons? Do you think Edwards was the only presidential candidate with a shadowy private life? Do you think that because the media is so good at exposing scandals, all scandalous behavior gets exposed? Think again.
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• Gallery: Casting John Edwards, The MovieIt’s remarkable that Sarah Palin’s family mess only made her seem more sympathetic to her supposedly “rube” fans, while Edwards’ mess enraged his supposedly “sophisticated” followers. This is the real, and most fateful divide between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives have an eschatological framework; liberals don’t. That is to say, conservatives are able to make sense of personal failure by seeming to forgive it and extending a second chance—to their own, that is. Yet rational, skeptical, secular liberals treat personal failure as a form of incurable leprosy. For the liberals still ranting and raving about Edwards’ misdeeds, “hope” is a thing with no feathers, and no future.
Whereas hope abounds in the conservative outlook. Did Newt Gingrich lose the base after he discussed divorce terms with his first wife while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, then cheated on his second one even as he was leading he campaign for Bill Clinton’s impeachment over l’affaire Lewinsky? Don’t think so. Nor did Rush Limbaugh lose many followers over his multiple divorces and pain-pill problem.
You might say that liberals see hope in limited political terms, while conservatives see it in personal terms. Or to put it another way, conservatives expect moral failings. Liberals, on the other hand, have an idealized sense of human nature. Reality keeps letting them down.
Maybe the liberal anathema of personal failure is what drove Edwards to burst out of the rigid confines of his political class and explode himself in defiance. One thing’s for sure. The teabaggers would welcome him with open arms. A few impassioned breast-beating speeches and he’d have another future before him.
I spoke of the conservatives being able to project forgiveness. I am talking about perceptions, not about reality—I am not talking about what conservatives really want, or how they really think. We know that politics is all about perception, but we refuse to accept it. I look at the public spectacle of liberal rage against Edwards, and I see—in its prudish indifference to everyday experience and to the crude practicalities of modern politics-as-spectacle—everything that Obama and the Democrats are doing wrong.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.