August 09, 2008


Sam Smith

The Edwards affair helps to explain my reputation as a doubter; and it provides added support for one of my basic journalistic principles: the quickest way to get into trouble into say something nice about a politician. As one whom I had once admired, Marion Barry, put it to another reporter, "Sam's a cynical cat."

In fact, the overwhelming proportion of my journalistic misjudgments have been the product of excessive optimism. So obvious is this statistical bias that I never compliment a politician anymore without considering the risk involved, the letters I will receive and the ridicule I may endure.

One of the ways I try to protect myself is by not fudging the story. Thus, I have noted of another recipient of Smithian praise, "If I find Ralph Nader driving a Hummer, I'm going to report it."

Which is one reason why the Review was among a tiny number of journals that reported last December on the National Enquirer's claims about John Edwards, even though I believed - and still do - that Edwards was the best Democratic candidate who stood a chance. The other reason was that I figured since those readers who went to conventional supermarkets had at least read the headlines in the checkout line, those readers who preferred Whole Foods should be given equal status.

As for the actual adulterous act, there has been a rush among lazy liberals to defend Edwards by comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, JFK and Bill Clinton. On the surface there are similarities. And then some. For example, I knew a guy who as a young man drove Kennedy during a key portion of the 1960 campaign and was specifically instructed to make sure that Kennedy remained in his assigned locations and didn't make a tryst-bound escape. On at least one occasion, he failed

But there are also striking differences. For example, a Huffington huffer writes:

"Some will claim, as they did with Bill Clinton, that it's not the affair but the lies that went along with it. Really? Did JFK come out and tell the American people - or his wife - 'by the way, while my wife was in the hospital I was having an affair with not one, but several women at the same time?' No, of course, he lied too. Every man that has ever cheated on his wife has lied (and so has every woman who has ever cheated). It is part and parcel of the affair."

What is not mentioned, of course, is that JFK did not lie under oath to a grand jury, deny a former sex partner a fair court hearing, and end up being legally punished not for casual sex but for being a legally contemptuous prevaricator.

Liberal denial notwithstanding, the Clinton story is different in a number of other ways:

- Although unreported, the Clinton sex escapades were so chronic they bordered on the pathological, as when - according to one of his police drivers - he had sex in car next to his daughter's school playground.

- The women - all of whom were later deserted, rejected or ridiculed by the women's movement - suffered more than the normal pangs of male sexual opportunism. They felt threatened, sometimes with good cause as with the skull found on the porch or a bullet laid on the front seat of their vehicle. One felt compelled to leave the country, another to another state.

- As I noted early in his presidency, Clinton's Don Juanish sexual behavior mirrored his political actions. He was no more to be trusted in one type of affair than in the other.

There is, on these grounds alone, a world of difference between Edwards, FDR and JFK on the one hand, and Clinton on the other.

There is another: his affair aside, Edwards was a clearly positive force in America. He was the first Democratic presidential candidate since the 1960s who had both a chance of winning and a program that would was in the best tradition of the most for the most. A liberal constituency absorbed with its own success (not to mention the socio-economic cleansing of our cities) wasn't interested.

I am sometimes criticized for being too priggish about politicians and how they should behave. Far from it. Two of the leading political scoundrels of modern time - Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell - got more good legislation past in less time than anyone in American history. I was there to cover the story and I learned from the experience not to expect perfection but compensation. Here's how I explained in later in writing about DC mayor Marion Barry:

"When Barry ran for mayoral reelection the last time, I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn't see why you had to do it the mayor's office. I broke up one talk show host by suggesting that Barry follow the example of a recently disgraced Irish bishop and go help the Indians of Guatemala.

"On another talk show, Barry said that the press was always blaming him for all the city's problems. I said that wasn't fair; I only blamed him for 26.7% of the city's problems. 'I'll buy that,' Marion replied. . .

Yet I also knew that Barry - like other urban ethnic politicians - had far more to blame than himself. Whatever his faults, he knew he had been granted dispensation because - like a feudal lord - he provided significant favors in return. Barry had lived in Memphis and I often suspected he had learned his politics from Boss Trump. For he understood the quid pro quo of traditional urban corruption that had helped the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles break down the worst corruption of all - that of an elite unwilling to share its power with others. It was far from a perfect deal but in the interim before the 'reformers' seized office again on behalf of their developer and other business buddies, more people would get closer to power than they ever had or would again. It happened in Chicago, in Boston as well as in Washington under Barry.

"And now the reformers are back. The young gentrifiers who think the greatest two moments in the city's history are when Barry went to jail and when they arrived in town. And their politicians, who don't feel it necessary to even tithe to the people."

That's where we found ourselves earlier this year. Two candidates - Obama and Clinton - running overwhelming for themselves and another, Edwards, at least tithing to the people.

Most politicians, when they fall, seek some safe haven to enjoy the rest of their lives. A few, and I suspect that Edwards may be one, are spurred to seek redemption through their acts. In which case the act that brought them down can fade and we see the wonder of humans recovering their soul.

He is blessed by still being married to Elizabeth Edwards, the finest spirit to show up on the national campaign trail this year. I was also struck by something Edwards said, "In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up - feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself. I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need my help."

It brought to mind a TV show where I had questioned Barry about his failure to apologize to the people of Washington DC for the harm he had done them. He went into a little spiel about his redemption ending by saying he hoped I would someday think him redeemed as well.

Afterwards, in the green room, I explained that I wasn't talking about his redemption but about the harm he had done the rest of us in the city. Isn't one of the 12 steps, I asked, that you deal with the damage you have done to others? Barry nodded and said "So you think I should apologize to them?" I said I thought it would help. But he never really did.

Bill Clinton, of course, never apologizes to anyone for anything. But a corner of my heart still whispers that Edwards could be different and that we may not have seen the best of him yet.