I never much liked John Edwards as a politician...and I guess we now know that he's a heel as a human being, too. But that doesn't mean his tawdry personal life is any of my concern. Consensual sex among adults isn't something that we in the media should bother about, except in extraordinary circumstances (say, the President is sharing a girlfriend with a Mafia Don). I thought the media suffered a sleazy nervous breakdown during the Lewinsky affair--although earlier in Clinton's presidency I wondered if his promiscuity reflected a basic indiscipline that had infected his Administration (Add: Clinton eventually proved me wrong). I didn't care whether Clarence Thomas watched porn films, if Newt Gingrich messed around...and I'm profoundly uninterested in what Larry Craig does in the loo.
So I think the mainstream media handled Edwards affair appropriately, for a change. There are two larger points at stake here:
--Just about anyone under the age of 60 who has lived in this permissive society during the past 40 years, has done something that might be unfit for a Hallmark Greeting Card. In fact, I have profound qualms about any would-be politician who hasn't allowed him- or herself a moment of untrammeled human or chemical exploration. I fear that the media have driven an awful lot of interesting people away from public service for reasons that would have seemed extreme to the second generation of New England Puritans.
--These sort of crapulous stories are next-door neighbors to the sleazy negative advertising that, well, John McCain has been accosting us with. They feed the notion that politicians are just a bunch of soulless, egomaniacal dolts without a high-minded--whoa, almost said bone in their bodies--pick your allusion. One of the worst results of the past 30 years of the Reagan pendulum swing is that the politicians-as-perverts meme fits quite neatly into the government-as-problem-not-solution meme. Given the problems we're facing now, this is not where we want our national discourse to be.
I'm not in favor of censorship. I am in favor of discretion and proportion. If the National Enquirer wants to go there, that's their business. I don't think Time Magazine should be in that business, and I'm proud we weren't. When the Lewinsky story broke, I wrote in the New Yorker: "This is an era that will be remembered more for the ferocity of its prosecutions than for the severity of its crimes." That still holds.
Commenter Ralph wants to know:
Why is Edwards's adultery a problem for Obama, while McCain's adultery is not a problem for McCain?
The answer is: Edwards' adultery is not a problem for Obama any more than Larry Craig's importunings should be a problem for McCain. As for McCain's alleged adultery--it's been denied by both parties and I really don't care about the Senator's sex life. I do care about the fact that he is running a campaign filled with lies about his opponent's positions, a campaign that is conducted in a snarky, subversive tone that is entirely inappropriate to American politics. I wish my colleagues would spend more time talking about what a disservice McCain is doing the country and less time "analyzing" why McCain has to tear down Obama in order to win. (If tearing down Obama is the only way he can win--and this should be obvious, but apparently it isn't--McCain doesn't deserve to win.)