Why the John Edwards scandal matters
It matters to me, and here's why.
On a personal level, I feel betrayed as a campaign contributor. Edwards' 2008 campaign was the first I had ever been significantly involved in. I admired his ideas and respected his willingness to bring Progressive ideas to the mainstream Democratic table. Living in Chapel Hill, I had a chance to meet him on several occasions and I thought his charisma would help promote his important causes, ending poverty and establishing health care. Now I know that the money I donated and raised from others may have gone to support his mistress in a well-compensated, fairly bogus job, paying her over $100,000 to make four short campaign "webisodes." Score one for political cynicism.
Knowing that Edwards went forward with his Presidential bid after the affair had not only begun, but had been revealed to his wife, creating a situation that could have cost the Democrats the election had he been the nominee--score a million for political cynicism and anger.
A lot of bloggers say this scandal shouldn't be about sex, but as a woman I feel compelled to point out that the situation does raise every wife's worst nightmare, that her husband would cheat on her and she wouldn't even know it. I mean, this guy was publicly cultivating the image of the perfect husband, and using it to sell his political candidacy, at the same time that he was cheating.
Score one for life cynicism.
Hypocrisy obviously plays a big role in our judgments of Edwards. Edwards himself gave speeches invoking morality: "I want to see our party lead on the great moral issues - yes, me a Democrat using that word - the great moral issues that face our country," Edwards tells the crowd. "If we want to live in a moral, honest just America and if we want to live in a moral and just world, we can't wait for somebody else to do it. We have to do it."
Edwards said of President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, "I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen."
If politicians are going to build their politcal platforms on moral issues, then their own internal consistency to those principles is fair to examine.
I find it ironic that I am pondering this story just as I wrote about how turning 40 makes me realize that life's rules do apply to me. John Edwards surely knows on a deep level that this is true of him as well, yet he has escaped into a zone where he has acquired such hubris and arrogance that he thought he could get away with his deception. This seems to be embedded in the very essence of politics, which is what I find truly disturbing. I perceived Edwards' Nightline interview as totally disingenuous, but I did believe him when he said:
Then I went from being a senator, a young senator to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences. And nothing, nothing could be further from the truth.
You do have to be pretty arrogant to run for President. Who could really know that they were qualified for such a job? But what will we get from leaders who believe that they can do whatever they want with no consequences--pretty much what we've had for the last 7 and a half years with George Bush. I had hoped that Edwards was a chance to turn the page beyond that kind of illegitimate leadership, but now it is clear that he is not immune to the narcissism and entitlement that comes with political power.
Many powerful men share elements of this core flaw, whether they are Bush administration officials promoting torture or forging intelligence to justify the Iraq war, social conservatives denouncing homosexuality and voting against civil rights for gay people while leading closeted lives themselves, Eliot Spitzer prosecuting prostitution while being a client, or Republican politicians promoting policies that will curtail reproductive rights for American women while knowing that if their daughter, girlfriend, or wife needed an abortion, they could always arrange to get one (see Vice President Dan Quayle and others).
What goes on in another couple's personal life may not seem like our business. But the fact that we are governed by leaders who think that the rules don't apply to them is something that should concern all of us. The consequences of that kind of thought can affect our lives, all the way from most personal decisions we make, to the United States' role on the world stage.
One solution is to get more women and more regular people into leadership positions. I know that is a hug challenge as long as it takes millions of dollars to run for political office. But organizations such as Emily's List and our own amazing Lillian's List here in North Carolina have made a real difference. We have to keep going. National office might be out of the question right now for some Moms, but what about state or local leadership? We need excellent school board members, town council leaders, mayors, and state legislators. And those positions create experience that can leader to higher office later.
For some women, I suspect that the question about entering public life is not so much "Can I do the job?" but rather "Can I stomach the political process?"--the insanity of it all: the money, the media, and the pressures and temptations of power that affect not only men but women as well.
I have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's new book Know Your Power in hand. I have not read it yet, but I did hear her interviewed on NPR when she talked about how Congress seemed like the ultimate Old Boys' club--Congressmen around the table even had a conversation about childbirth without inviting input from the women who were present! Ultimately though, Pelosi ultimately learned that there is no "secret sauce"--despite the aura and mystique the men tried to create, there is no secret recipe for success.
I wrote in my book Mojo Mom that the world needs your leadership. That was true when the book was new and I believe that is more true than ever now. So I ask each of you to look at what we can do to cook up your own recipe for public engagement.