Until very recently, a photograph of myself and John Edwards hung on the wall of my office. Before his campaign imploded in Iowa, I’d done some work for the Senator in California. On the night of that particular picture, I’d been standing in the garden of a beautiful house in Beverly Hills, where supporters were hosting a cocktail party to raise money for his long shot bid. Edwards came up behind me and grabbed me by the arm. “You, come with me,” he said. Thinking it was a security guard who’d mistaken me for a trespasser, I’d just about dropped my drink and was about to protest. But when I turned around, Edwards had a huge grin on his face. “Get rid of your name tag,” he said, and I did so just in time for the photographer to snap a shot of the two of us.
Earlier this week, I took that photo down. What had been the pride of my office wall had become a bitter reminder of Senator Edwards’ personal indiscretions, a joke for passers-by to point to and say, “hey, isn’t that the guy with the sick wife who knocked up a campaign worker?”
Edwards’ precipitous decline from Democratic golden boy to the stereotypical can’t-keep-his-pants-on politician has left me awestruck. Why is it that Edwards, like so many politicians before him, fell prey to the temptations of power? The short answer is that it’s a sense of entitlement. Edwards said in his mea culpa press release that he’d begun to feel as though he were “special.” Read: entitled. Being in positions of power and influence has an incredible effect on the ego, and that’s why we’ve seen so many politicians getting caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. For the Bob Neys and Ted Stevens of the world, it’s the allure of money. For the Bill Clintons, Gary Harts, and John Edwards, its…well, it’s another vice.
The truth is that John Edwards went from leading the Democratic idea debate to just another political sideshow. He’s a supermarket tabloid cover, only worse: in his case, the normally ridiculous “UFOs Spotted at White House” headlines actually got it right. And what’s worse is that Elizabeth Edwards has become the pity case that she never wanted to be, even through her bout with what will certainly be terminal cancer. Too intelligent and too dignified to play the role of Dina McGreevy, she’s nonetheless been featured in the all-too-typical People Magazine “My Struggle” cover piece.
In another few months or years, few will remember that Edwards- for better or for worse- raised the bar on national healthcare, essentially cementing the issue into the Democratic platform. He focused the Democratic spotlight on infrastructure and rural investment, two areas that the big-government Bush Administration managed to defund and neglect for the past eight years.
But where from here? The Democratic Party has a certain responsibility to ensure that the love child doesn’t go out with the bathwater. For the short time he was on the national political stage, Edwards championed issues that are incredibly important to the party platform. It will be an incredible challenge, but Howard Dean and Barack Obama (to the extent that he is the national leader of the party over the next four years) will have to effectively divorce the issues from Edwards. As candidates, Democrats will have to take up the flags of rural infrastructure investment and national healthcare, or risk having them disappear from the national debate in the same pathetic way that Edwards himself has.
But members of the Democratic rank-and-file have a responsibility as well; that is, to essentially turn our backs on John Edwards. I’m all for the maxim that, as private citizens, we are all entitled to make mistakes and to be forgiven for them. As a person, I forgive Edwards and I hope everyone else will, too. But insofar he is an elected representative and a spokesman for the party and its issues, I expect more. Moreover, as a man who held his marriage, implicitly or otherwise, as an example of his integrity, credibility, and character, John Edwards failed his cause.
It’s important to resist the temptation to defend Edwards unequivocally, as some Republicans did for Tom DeLay in the wake of the Abramoff scandal and Senator David Vitter after his name turned up on the client list of a prostitution service. Whether you agree with it or not, the men and women who serve under our flag are subject to a higher level of scrutiny in their private lives. They are not private citizens. The code of conduct for a leader is far more stringent and demanding than that of the average person, and to the extent that he or she fails to honor that code, so should the consequences of those actions be more punitive and severe. Because Edwards didn’t just do something wrong, he lied and impugned the journalistic integrity of the reporters who caught him. He threw his own integrity, credibility, and character out the window.
There are, of course, honest men and women who manage to steer clear of scandal- whether sexual or financial or other in nature. And the truth is that there are too many fantastic leaders with new and inspiring ideas to become ensnared in defending the flawed man who put those ideas at risk.