My John Edwards Failure


I've been thinking about what seems to me a double standard in my treatment of vice-presidential frauds, with respect to Sarah Palin and John Edwards, and trying to figure out where I went wrong. No, I'm not backtracking on Palin: all I regret is not being able to expose her for real yet. But I'm a blogger not an investigative reporter; my job as I see it, is to make sense of the facts on the table and disseminate them, not to do the vital legwork to get new facts. And there's also the obvious fact that Palin was a total unknown and we had only two months to figure out who she was, especially since she wasn't vetted by McCain in any serious way. But Edwards came closer to power than Palin did in the end - Bush's second victory was nowhere near as decisive as Obama's. And we know now what a narcissistic creep and liar he was. I don't believe that politicians should be saints, but I do believe that character matters, which is why my favorite presidents remain Reagan and Obama.

So why did I let it go? My first reason is my leeriness of investigating people's sex lives. I had my own ransacked a decade ago and it was a brutalizing experience. The exposure of such intimate thing coarsens our discourse, violates human dignity and should, in my view, be done only if massive hypocrisy is on the table and the person is more than just a minor public figure. That's why I've long opposed outing people.

So I steered clear out of this sensitivity. I barely covered the Tiger Woods stuff for those reasons, and even came to defend Clinton in the end because of the callousness and fanaticism of Ken Starr. But there was something else at work here in the case of Edwards, I suspect.

It just seemed too awful for me to believe. I mean his wife, whom I took to be a very decent person, had terminal cancer. Although adultery is extremely common - especially among people disturbed enough to seek political office - I dismissed it too easily. I mean his wife was confronting death on a daily basis. I just couldn't believe a husband could do that to his wife then. I also felt protective toward Elizabeth, feeling that investigating this would be deeply hurtful to a woman faced with mortality. Maybe my own brushes with mortality affected me in this as well.

In all this, of course, I was wrong. It really was that bad, and if Game Change is to be believed (and I think it broadly is), it was even worse. My mistake as a journalist was in making an assumption of a baseline of decency in public officials that it is not my job to make. My job is to assume nothing and to trust nothing until verified. One doesn't have to pry; but when rumors emerge, we should not be deferent with public officials. We should ask questions.

With Palin, people assumed that because she was a governor, she had a baseline level of competence, logic, general knowledge and mental stability. Wrong. On the Trig stuff, it was just too absurd to doubt her story, however factually implausible it appeared. With Edwards, people assumed that his own good looks, and his much less glamorous, though still lovely, wife implied a marriage of depth and love. We assumed that the shared loss of their son had bonded them for ever (while of course the evidence often suggests, tragically, that losing a child is a death-knell for many marriages). We assumed that he wasn't one of the biggest assholes on the planet.

So we didn't go there. But he, like Palin, could have been president of the US at some point. And we barely knew him. I want to apologize to my readers for dropping this ball. And congratulate the National Enquirer for following the facts where they eventually led.

There's courage in that. Pulitzer-level courage.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty.)