Editorial: When the Personal Becomes Political

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday August 14, 2008 - 08:46:00 AM

The buzz of the week is that John Edwards was carrying on with the cute little blonde videographer wanna-be who was trailing his campaign for a while. Some commentators affected surprise. Not, of course, the irrepressible Alexander Cockburn, who’s been avidly repeating the National Enquirer’s breathless reports about the affair for months. 

Just a sample of his pungent prose on the subject from the latest Counterpunch: “For nearly a year the Enquirer had a serious candidate for the Democrats’ presidential nominee cold as a USDA-rated prime grade rat who did not scruple to betray his ailing wife Elizabeth (while making political capital out of her condition), then to enlist her as a co-conspirator in lying to Edwards’s supporters and to the voters at large.”  

And who does Cockburn blame for this? “The crony mainstream press,” of course, who could have been reporting on l’affaire Rielle since last fall, and chose not to. As usual, Cockburn has a point.  

The New York Times’ “Public Editor” (designated voice of conscience) Clark Hoyt got a couple of choice quotes for his tsk-tsking follow-up on why the Times skipped the story until the last amen minute: 

“Edwards-Hunter was ‘classically not a Times-like story,’ said Craig Whitney, the standards editor.’ And ‘I’m not going to recycle a supermarket tabloid’s anonymously sourced story,’ said Bill Keller, the executive editor.”  

Evidently no one in “the crony mainstream press” (hereinafter CMP) accepted the ’60s dictum that the personal is political. Of course, it’s far from news that many of those who thrust themselves into the spotlight, political or otherwise, are prone to doing a bit of...what shall we call it? The old-fashioned term would be whoring around, but since even women have taken it up in these emancipated days, let’s just say looking for self-esteem in all the wrong places. 

The CMP has always wanted to pretend that this doesn’t happen, even as the gossip circuit is devouring the evidence. When I first moved back to California from the Midwest, my neighbor was a woman who was also a Midwest transplant. One day she came running over to my house to report breathlessly that she’d seen two local politicos, both at the time married to others, necking in the balcony of the Grand Lake Theater. Her Midwest must have been different from my Midwest, where we had a state official in Michigan renowned for looking for fresh meat among the co-eds every time he hit town. But the newspapers, here or there, never reported a word about any of this. 

Berkeley gossips also had a field day way back when with the CMP reporter whose main squeeze (not necessarily adulterous) was a reported-upon official. It happened then, and happens now. All the time. And around here lately it doesn’t even cause much excitement on the gossip circuit, let alone in the press. 

But when the personal becomes political, as it has in the Edwards situation, is when it has the potential to affect outcomes. If John Edwards, flashy local trial attorney, is carrying on with a local lady who’s known for being no better than she should be, no problemo. But when candidate JE, the great white hope of the liberal left, is allowing himself to be set up for being exposed to the less-than-tolerant part of the electorate at exactly the wrong point in the campaign, that’s news.  

It’s the stupidity, stupid. It’s not just doing it, from the political perspective, it’s getting caught. FDR didn’t get caught. (Probably—or did the contemporary CMP just conceal it?) Big Bill Clinton did, and went down in history in the minds of many as a fool. 

This, by the way, goes directly to the center of why many older women, contrary to what the CMP would like you to believe, were not broken-hearted to be spared the necessity of voting for Hillary Clinton. They found Hillary herself to be not a bad choice, but the fact that she is still hooked up with that fool made her look equally stupid to sensible women. Many of them didn’t like the idea of voting for a chump. 

That’s why what former Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson told ABCNews.com is completely backwards. “I believe we would have won Iowa, and Clinton today would therefore have been the nominee” if Edwards’ affair had been reported and he’d dropped out, Wolfson said.  

Oh sure. Actually, if my unscientific exit poll of my politically correct acquaintances is valid, many of them had already voted for Edwards as their alternative to Clinton, by mail in the California primary before he dropped out. They perceived him as the farthest left in the field, with Obama in the middle and Clinton on the right and looking like a willing victim to boot.  

This is the point at which it might be appropriate to ask where’s the morality in all of this. Personal morality, the kind that decides whether you choose to confess to adultery or say you were only playing around, is just that, personal. Some draw a line between doing it and lying about it when you get caught, but that’s sophistry, unless you’ve given the person you were cheating on a blow-by-blow description while the action was going on.  

But it’s not just about personal morality when you ask people with serious political concerns to support you, knowing that you have an Achilles heel that could crush your candidacy at any time. David Bonior is a good liberal who used to be a Democratic congressman from Michigan (though after the time of our notoriously randy state official). He summed up the public morality of Edwards’ deception for an AP reporter over the weekend: 

“Thousands of friends of the senator’s and his supporters have put their faith and confidence in him, and he’s let them down,” said Bonior, who managed Edwards’ 2008 campaign. “They’ve been betrayed by his action...You can’t lie in politics and expect to have people’s confidence.”