Over at The Bilerico Project, Alex Blaze has an interesting piece which is something of a counter-point to yesterday's post on the Edwards-Hunter curfuffle. Alex's main point is that extramarital affairs are pretty human, that we don't know enough about the internal dynamics of the Edwards' marriage to judge the situation, and that, in general, this isn't a newsworthy story. In fact, the major thrust of the article seems to be that it's an inappropriate story which the press shouldn't be covering. I responded in the comments section and a long and, imho, unproductive conversation resulted. I've tried to clarify some of my thoughts and explain them a little more succinctly here. I've failed to make them more succinct, but I at least think they're a little more clear.
I'm somewhat sympathetic to Alex's point. I've written before that I prefer a more humane politics which recognizes that politicians are human beings and, as such, have failings, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The expectation that people be perfect in order to hold office seems both unfair and unrealistic. Moreover, the rush to condemn public figures for their "moral" failures often belies a desire to impose standards that most people don't conform to in their own private lives. As a general rule, it's much better to try to understand and empathize with politicians and to try to treat all people -- those we agree and disagree with -- as charitably as possible.
All that said, I think Alex's point is misguided for several reasons.
First, Alex misunderstands the complaint of many of Edwards' critics, especially those on the left who had previously supported him. The problem is not necessarily that Edwards had an affair. I'm willing to confess that I usually frown on that sort of thing, but I generally regard it as the business of the couple in question and not my own. Since Edwards campaigned vigorously as a man devoted to his wife and children, I think it's relevant to note he was unfaithful, but I'm still willing to give him, even then, a lot of leeway.
The larger problem is that in order to hide the affair Edwards paid off Hunter to the tune of $100,000 from his campaign funds. In other words, money that I -- as a donor -- thought would be going to pay for John Edwards' TV ads and staffers, ended up being funneled to cover-up Edwards' indiscretion. And when Edwards was asked by the media about precisely those payments, he lied repeatedly. In fact, there is every indication that he is still lying about it, even as he seeks the forgiveness of the public for lying. In other words, Edwards began by lying to his wife, expanded by lying to his supporters, built up by lying to the media, and is now lying to the general public. He lied about the affair, then he lied about campaign funds, now he's lying about the cover-up.
Now, in comments, Alex wants to equate the obviously selfish lying of Edwards with situations that are more morally complex. Are people who lie to save their spouses immoral? What about gay soldiers who lie to fight for their military? Alex wants to suggest that I have a Manichean view of honesty in which lying is never justified. That's ridiculous and I certainly never said it. My statement is that generally honesty is a good thing in life and in public officials. Moreover, all those lies clearly reflect poorly on John Edwards and, as a public figure who is frequently mentioned for positions of trust and responsibility, recommend against him. Not dispositively, of course, but they have to be in the discussion.
And let's be clear: John Edwards wasn't lying to the Gestapo to save the Jews in the attic. He was lying to salvage his political career. I can understand the pressure to lie in that situation, but I'm certainly not willing to condone it or shrug it off. Politicians are frequently put in positions that pit their personal advancement against the public interest, and whether they are willing to lie to save their asses seems relevant to predicting how they will respond in those situations.
This leads me to the second point. My specific criticism of Alex's piece is less that John Edwards is actually a really, really bad person, and more that evidence of his dishonesty is certainly newsworthy and the media shouldn't be faulted just for covering it (that they covered it poorly is a different issue). In other words, our opinions of fidelity, honesty, and morality in general aside, the fact that Edwards orchestrated a cover-up of an affair using campaign funds is something that people may reasonably find relevant when assessing John Edwards for future positions.
Indeed, Alex's position is that because John Edwards behavior doesn't offend his ethical sensibility, it's unacceptable for anyone else to discuss it. In other words, the standard for what is an appropriate story for the media to report is subject to one and only one standard: Does Alex Blaze find it relevant?
This seems, on its face, a fascinating inversion of the radical Christian perspective which seeks to carve out from popular conversation anything that does not conform to a narrow and rather rigid understanding of right and wrong.
My perspective is pluralism. I can understand if you don't care about John Edwards' affair and cover-up, but the solution is for your to ignore it, not for you to demand that everyone who operates from a different ethical standard be quiet. Real pluralism requires that we shrug when we see some news articles that don't conform to what we think is relevant information. I'd rather have a media that reports too much about politicians than a media that reports too little.
Finally, I find Alex's starry-eyed infatuation with the the power of sexuality to excuse what would clearly, in any other context, be unethical behavior, quite confusing.
Alex writes in comments:
It [his affair] suggests that John Edwards is a complicated human being. Of course he had to have known that sleeping with a woman who wasn't his wife would damage his career, in the same way Larry Craig had to have known that hitting up men in bathroom stalls wouldn't help his career. But there's a desire there, a powerful need, that figured into their calculus of what to do that transcended career goals.
Here Alex imagines sexuality as an imponderable impulse, trapped in the loins of John Edwards, which burns through, pushing aside the trivial competing desires of conventional ethics (don't lie!) and personal advancement (it will ruin your career!). Is John Edwards' decision to pay Rielle Hunter also a part of this strange apparatus? Does John Edwards derive a sexual pleasure from this evasion? Do the heightened stakes of this liaison multiply his pleasures?
We cannot know! It is SEXUALITY!
So enamored are we with this thing sexuality, that we have invented for it a whole new physics, unconnected and unaligned with conventional economies, subject only to new, unwritten laws.
The irony, of course, is that by investing sexuality with the power to bend and bind in this fashion we only heighten interest in it. My narrative of the events reflects poorly on Edwards' but is the truly banal, human story: John Edwards engages in a series of lies to salvage his political career, demonstrating a disregard for his credibility with his supporters and the public alike. In Alex's narrative Edwards is acquitted but the story, my god, the story is sensational: John Edwards throws it all away to pursue the secret majesty of sexuality! Imagine the complexity of his emotions! Imagine the sophistication of sensations! We must test it! We must investigate! What else can we learn about this "powerful need"? What other stories will reveal this concealed impulse?
Listen: Alex can write the codex of John Edwards' loins, or his own loins, or nobody's loins, or whatever, but the introduction of someone's genitals into the picture doesn't mean I suspend some pretty basic understandings of ethics. And my sense is that contriving an unnecessarily complicated ethical universe to excuse Edwards' behavior will do more to heighten interest in the "complex", high-stakes sexual lives of politicians than to diminish it.