Should Edwards Aides Be Shamed And Blamed?

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Late Friday night, having browsed through Andrew Young's book exposing bare the details of John Edwards's extensive cover-up of his reckless decisions, I tweeted that "The senior staff who covered for John Edwards should be identified and shamed out of the Dem consulting world."  I stand by that Tweet. Like a lawyer, political strategists often subordinate their own personal interests to advocate for the aims of their clients. Candidates, being human, often make human mistakes, and occasionally, strategists, consultants and staff devise a plan to smooth out the characterological pleats.

But the Edwards candidacy was based on a lie: that the humble son of a mill worker in North Carolina could make it to the national stage; received the blessings of an American life; and was composed of two remarkable human beings, who, having lived through tragedy (former and current), were moving forward, destined to end poverty in America within one generation. THE frontpiece for this sale was the Edwards family; adorable children, a strong and loving wife, a proud and doting father, a young charming, Camelot couple. 

Signs of trouble were evident in 2004, as sequences in "Game Change" make clear, but egoism is venial. That Elizabeth Edwards wasn't the nicest person in the world -- well, candidate spouses at this level are often as ambitious and hard-edged as their husbands. (cf. Bill Clinton in the heart of his wife's primary battle.)

Even those staff members who knew that John Edwards was having an affair -- or suspected as much -- shouldn't feel the weight of the burden today. Several of them went to Edwards and confronted him -- that's really their obligation -- and he dutifully denied it, and without supporting evidence, they let it go. It does seem true that dozens of mid-to-lower level staff ignored what in retrospect were obvious signs of pathology; willfully so, because they just didn't want to believe it, because they were young and had no job other to go to know, because they couldn't bear the thought that Jack and Emma Claire, the youngest and the most innocent, would suffer from the exposure that their parents' marriage was based on an increasingly devious pact.

But there were a handful of staff members who knew that Edwards had at least one affair, who knew that he continued to have extramarital sexual liaisons during the campaign, who knew that the portrait of the Edwardses marriage was fictitious, who aided and abetted the perpetuation of an image they knew to be false; who arranged for the cover-up; who lied, directly, to reporters and to other staff members; who were veterans of the campaign game; whose loyalty to the Edwards family, such was it was, trumped whatever residual responsibility they felt to the democratic process.  These men and women did the country a disservice.   Not that they should have gone public and accused their guy of being a demon: several folks who learned about the affair decided that they would leave the campaign and pursue other opportunities. 

We can't bore into this question without asking whether journalists should have followed up on the rumors that they -- we -- I -- all heard. After the Clinton years, we are simultaneously more curious about these things and less willing to chase them. Hard to find a presidential candidate without a peccadillo -- a gay (or straight) experience in college, a few years of pot-smoking, a shoplifting conviction, unpaid Cambridge, Mass. parking tickets, even an extramartial affair or two.  What's objectionable about John Edwards's affair was not that his libido overrode his judgment. It was the extensive cover-up that resulted and the continuing lies and recklessness.  AND it was about the office that Edwards sought: the most powerful in the land. People seeking such power deserve to be held accountable  and held to a higher degree of scrutiny. Interpersonal conflict and character drive decisions as much as ideology and rational calculations. It is not impertinent or prurient to investigate the character of a presidential candidate. Where do we draw the line? There's no guidebook. The one rule of the road -- if the transgression harms one's ability to to do the job -- is useless, because we can't define "harm" without knowing the full extent of the transgression.

A screen too tight drives good people out of politics and sucks in those who are good at covering up their humanness. Some have suggested that the political press should investigate every rumor (impractical) or none (letting the tabloids do their job, which, if they do, will ultimately force the establishment media to kick in coverage at a later date).  I am more comfortable with the second approach, but I don't think it's sufficient.  Having Tweeted my harsh judgment against Edwards aides, I received several replies that admonished me to focus on issues, on policy, and not on personality.  Would that personality doesn't matter; would that character doesn't effect policy (and it's not because we say it does -- it does). Would that the real would of choices, decisions, campaigns and even voter preferences weren't changed by the portrait we draw of a candidate, his or her family, how he or she treats his staff. 

As Harry Shearer Tweeted, the moment he learned that John Edwards decided to use the Lower Ninth ward in New Orleans as the backdrop for his campaign announcement, he had a "fishy" feeling "when his supporters urged me to his website for his platform on NO, and the main item was 'more cops.'"

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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