Why John Edwards's Affair Matters
It has become a stereotypical pattern with men. A lad with a salad-days libido has a girl in every port, plays fast and loose with feelings, and breaks hearts. Then he gets older, marries, has a daughter, and becomes very protective. He doesn’t want her dating guys who are just like he was.
What this tells us is that when it’s our ox being gored, reality often becomes crystal clear. Sure, as a young man, dad no doubt rationalized his behavior. But when the object of ravishing eyes is his daughter, he knows what having good character means, why it matters, and wants her beau to possess it.
Unfortunately, this pattern is exhibited on a wider scale as well. When Bill Clinton’s dalliances came to light, millions of people circled the wagons for the selfish end of preserving the career of a man who did their political bidding, despite the fact that many of them wouldn’t accept such scandalous behavior in their own lives. “Character doesn’t matter” became a mantra, and deviancy was further defined downwards.
The problem with this attitude is that it increases the chances that America will choose the wrong suitor. And, like that proverbial father, when we’re not blinded by a desire to justify our own misdeeds or those of someone whose cause we’re championing, we know character matters. Isn’t it obvious? Would you want to be pulled over by a policeman who had bad character? How about giving your car to a mechanic with bad character? Would you place your child in the hands of a daycare provider with bad character? If not, why would you consider giving the reins of government – and especially the nuclear button – to a politician with bad character (yes, I know that is almost a redundancy)?
When we ask ourselves these questions, it places the matter in perspective; it becomes clear that character is central to anything one might do. If the matter is a politician, what he espouses may sound good, but on what basis can we assess the probability that he’ll keep his promises and strive to advance our nation and not just himself?
This is why John Edwards’ affair matters; it is why all politicians’ indiscretions do. As for Edwards, while he is now a private citizen, he recently ran for president and presumably intended to do so again in the future. And, in all cases, a transgression is an important little picture that, when taken together with the other pieces of the metaphorical jigsaw puzzle, reveals the big picture. Thus, I don’t say one sordid event necessarily epitomizes a person’s life, but, nevertheless, it may be a crucial piece, without which the big picture remains indecipherable.
Many people will defend the character-doesn’t-matter position by self-assuredly saying that the only relevant factor is that a person is competent. This is a nice fantasy; it’s a bit like saying it doesn’t matter if a computer has corrupted files as long as the hardware is top-notch. An auto mechanic may have tremendous talent in his field – great “raw material” – but it’s all for naught if you can’t trust him to render honest diagnoses, only do necessary work, install new parts when you pay for them, and ensure the job is well done. Ability isn’t the only prerequisite for competence; conscientiousness and perseverance are two others. And what are they a function of?
Something else relevant to competence is the percentage of the time your mind is engaged in productive thought. It’s said the average man thinks about sex every 20 seconds, and, while I think this statistic an exaggeration, the fact is that the more time a mind spends engrossed in what it shouldn’t, the less time it has to focus on what it should. As to this, Bill Clinton has admitted to having a “sex addiction,” which leaves one to wonder how much time he had to ponder policy. Oh, I know he showed up for meetings, but the point is that when you’re obsessed with sex, drugs, alcohol or some other untoward behavior, it doesn’t leave much time for deep thought or the introspection that breeds moral and spiritual growth.
Some will still say that private indiscretions are private matters, but to aspiring public officials, different rules apply. If you think this is unjust, consider that if you want to work for certain media outlets, they demand you sign a morality clause; this ensures you won’t bring disgrace upon the organization and rob it of credibility. Similarly, politicians are applying for a job with us, the employers; thus, we have a duty to not only make sure they possess that oft-unrecognized prerequisite for competence but that they also don’t bring disgrace upon the nation.
If some scoff at this, I submit that their sense of shame is sorely lacking. There was a time when children often heard the admonition, “Don’t bring shame upon the family.” But you only have to surf YouTube, MySpace or some other juvenile den of iniquity to know that the “Hey, hey, ho, ho, guilt and conscience have gotta go” movement has been largely successful. No, we’re no longer “repressed”; we’ve regressed – to a state of licentiousness reminiscent of the ancient Roman ignobility. And don’t mistake it for the freedom of having shed shackles; it’s the bondage of having shed morality.
Of course, our libertine state is the reason why some people are loath to hold scandalous politicians accountable. Many times a decadent public official is simply the man in the mirror, and it’s human nature to go soft on transgressions of which we are also guilty. People will always be reluctant to uphold standards that would condemn themselves, even if it means that wanting statesmen will, consequently, continue to be visited upon the nation. This is why English poet William Cowper once rhetorically asked, “When was public virtue to be found when private was not?”
This is a tough psychological hurdle to overcome, but there is something I can say to such people. If you require the services of a pilot or brain surgeon, you want an individual who is absolutely superior to you in that area. And if you want to learn golf, do you seek guidance from the worst duffer simply so you can feel better about your own woods-and-water game?
The same standard must be applied to politicians. Since public virtue is necessary for good government, we should want public officials who are superior to us in that regard. (Although, if we were somehow able to craft a civilization where beauty at the top belied depravity at the bottom, we might be the very first nation in history to do so.)
This desire to justify ourselves by eliminating standards that would condemn us doesn’t dissipate upon taking an oath of office, and this is another reason why character relates to competence. Consider, for example, the recent revelations about 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals chief judge Alex Kozinski. While this right honorable jurist was presiding over an obscenity trial, it was discovered that he himself had a pornographic website. Kozinski said he thought the site “was for his private storage and that he was not aware the images could be seen by the public,” but isn’t it a good thing they didn’t remain a “private matter”? Isn’t it logical to assume he has rationalized his behavior and that this just might influence his adjudication of the case? Connecting the dots here isn’t difficult: Sound judgment is part of competence, and descent into depravity can corrupt judgment. This is why the Bible speaks of “eyes blinded by sin.”
If it seems I’m saying that character is defined solely by sexual propriety, think again. Shortly after the Edwards story broke, some on the left pointed out that John McCain also was once unfaithful to an ailing wife – sometime before electricity. And in all fairness, voters have every right to consider this when assessing the senator (although a complete assessment also allows that a man can change over the course of decades). We need to be completely fair, however. Thus, when comparing his character to that of Barack Obama, we also have to consider the latter’s attendance in a bigoted, black-theology church; his many sordid associations, which include an ex-Weatherman terrorist; his indifference to infanticide (BAIPA opposition); his criticism of America overseas; his refusal to visit injured troops upon discovering there could be no campaign-advancing photo-op; his advocacy of legalized theft (stealing money from oil companies to provide a $1000 “energy rebate”); and many other things.
But however you judge our public officials, character should be high up on the list. Because if it now means less than empty campaign slogans, it should be obvious what kind of government we deserve.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.