The night before last, in a fit of curiosity, I cross-posted my essay Surviving Cancer, Surviving Affairs on Salon’s new blogging/social-networking platform, Open Salon. I’ve been a long-time Salon reader, so I was curious to test-drive this new feature. My post somehow caught the eye of Salon’s editor-in-chief, Joan Walsh, who quoted a lengthy excerpt in her column.
All of which was kind of cool, but since the excerpt didn’t include the part where I said “that doesn’t mean it was right” for John Edwards to cheat on his wife, a lot of letter-writers who responded to Joan Walsh’s column felt that she and I were making excuses for him.
So I’ll just say it one more time, with feeling: He done her wrong. John did not have Elizabeth’s blessing to go outside the marriage. Her statements make clear that she was deeply, deeply hurt.
At the same time, I’m still frustrated by the dominant but simplistic trope of “what kind of a monster cheats on a sick spouse?” For those who’ve never experienced cancer or other serious illness, it may be hard to imagine how illness and its aftermath can mess with people’s heads and hearts. Otherwise decent people can make hurtful decisions when they’re not thinking or feeling straight. This goes for patients and caretakers alike.
Moreover, sexual infidelity is only one possible form that failure and betrayal can take. I have not slept with anyone other than my husband since I married him, 14 years ago to this day. I believe he can truthfully say the same. And yet, we’ve both failed each other in a variety of ways, as long-term partners inevitably will. Most of these failures occurred in the aftermath of illness. By now, we’re back in a pretty good place, but it took work. It took us recommitting to each other again and again.
In that light, John Edwards’ behavior looks wrong but not incomprehensible. It’s harder to see him as Evil, though we may still see him as weak. He’s not inhuman. He’s just human.
And if we acknowledge that, then we have to inject a little humility into the three-ring-circus of judgmentalism. We have to let his family and his higher power judge his private misdeeds.
As for his public misdeeds, I purposely didn’t address them in my original post. I chose to “write what I know” because I thought I could shed a different light than most of the commentary I’d read, and because I wanted to engage a conversation on relationships and serious illness. That doesn’t mean I believe the political questions are trivial. On the contrary! I just thought others were covering the political side much more thoroughly.
As more facts and questions have come to light, though, I’m becoming increasingly concerned that l’affair Edwards might dog the Democratic Party through the rest of this election cycle. So, for the record, here is how I think it genuinely affects the public interest.
First, there’s the question of whether the affair began before Rielle Hunter was hired. Some sources suggest this was the case. If so, then Edwards can fairly be accused of misappropriating campaign funds in hiring her.
Second, we know that Hunter has received millions of dollars, ostensibly to help rebuild her life after harassment by the tabloids. To me, this goes a tad beyond the call of kindness. (We should all have such generous friends in our lives!) Again, if any of this money came from political contributions, whoever is responsible needs to be held accountable.
Third, it was unquestionably reckless for Edwards to run for president with a major skeleton in his closet. In an ideal world, voters could distinguish between private behavior and public competence. But in America, they don’t. And so the philandering politician lies. And then he gets caught. And then half of America is shocked at his sexual activities, while the other, purportedly more liberal half, cries: “It’s not the sex! It’s the lying!” – never mind that the lies were about entirely private (albeit foolish) behavior. Yeah, it’s politically immature of us. But that’s how things work in America, and Edwards knows this; he’s too savvy a politician to claim naivete. He knew full well that if his affair became public, his chances at the presidency would be toast. And so he not only wronged Elizabeth, he also deceived his supporters and put the future of his party at risk. Imagine if he were the presumptive candidate right now!
Fourth, I’m suspicious about why Rielle Hunter is refusing to allow a paternity test to be conducted. Could it be that she’s being paid off on the condition that she continues to refuse testing? This would allow John Edwards to act innocent – he’s agreed to be tested – without putting him at any risk.
All of these unanswered questions are at least a distraction from Obama’s campaign efforts. At worst, they may become a drag on the Democratic party, including the down-ticket races. I assume Edwards went public now in hopes of averting a big blow-up closer to November 4, but if he has failed to come clean – or worse, appears to be harboring more secrets – his grand confession will have been for naught.
And then there’s one other thing that’s bugging me, which is in a totally different register. Why does so much of the commentary revolve around the question of “why men cheat”? Sure, very, very few female politicians have been caught out in sex scandals. But garden variety affairs normally require two partners, and very often both are married. The statistics on infidelity are not terribly reliable, but on average they seem to show about a ten percentage-point gap between married men and married women. So why do we cling to this narrative of faithless men getting it on with desperate/victimized/conniving single gals?
I guess that loops back to my original frustration with the simplistic stories we Americans want to tell ourselves about that complex and mysterious thing, marriage.