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During his run for the White House, John Edwards often appeared on the campaign trail with his wife, Elizabeth. In the wake of his highly publicized infidelity, the couple recently confirmed they have separated.
During his run for the White House, John Edwards often appeared on the campaign trail with his wife, Elizabeth. In the wake of his highly publicized infidelity, the couple recently confirmed they have separated. Win McNamee/Getty Images
I am sure many people feel that what has happened between John and Elizabeth Edwards is none of our business. Why can't we leave those poor people alone? Don't we have more important things to think about?
But I am equally sure many other people take the opposite view. Why else would all these people be watching their interviews and reading books about their exploits?
Obviously, if you open up your life to other people's gaze, you can't be shocked when they keep looking. Just as clearly, both of the Edwardses have tried to have it both ways, opening up their relationship to scrutiny when it suited them and trying to close the door when it did not.
Can I just tell you? It's all true on the one hand, and yet none of it is the whole truth.
It's a peculiar thing in this country that we expect political leaders, especially those aspiring to the presidency, to go beyond merely advancing their ideas for governing to offering themselves as a model for living. In recent years, this scrutiny has extended to their families, as well. Wives of the male candidates are eagerly sought out for their recipes, fashion sense, workout tips and child-rearing advice. And woe betide the candidate who does not want to play along. The Clintons were actually criticized for trying to shield their daughter from public scrutiny when Bill Clinton was running for president, to the point where some voters did not know they had a child and one Republican pundit even suggested that most voters could not relate to them because they had only one.
And then, of course, there's Sarah Palin. Her selection as John McCain's running mate was minutes old before questions were being raised, not about what kind of governor she was, but about what kind of mother she was and how she'd handle her family affairs along with affairs of state.
In a way, this is not new at all: a pay-to-play tabloid press, opposition research, paying people to spread damaging truthful information or lies. All of this has had some place in American political life for centuries. What's new is our uncertainty about what is acceptable and what is not — an uncertainly that the political system is eager to exploit.
Thirty years ago, Barney Frank would never have survived the revelations about his sexual orientation, but he's not only served in Congress as an out gay man for more than two decades, he's a committee chair.
And Hillary Clinton? Well if she isn't the poster child for not knowing what we expect from women, I don't know who is. She's been pilloried for writing papers about the human rights of children before drawing a government paycheck, and praised for getting teary on the campaign trial as she campaigned to be commander in chief. Go figure.
As voters, we are complicit in this. We claim we care about the issues, but then we freely admit to ignoring all else to vote for the person we most want to have a beer with or who we admire as a parent. And then we get disgusted when these leaders work overtime to construct an image as someone we'd like to have a beer with or as a model parent, whatever that means.
We criticize candidates (or their families) for being fake and punish them when they get real. When, during the campaign, Michelle Obama said she did not appreciate her husband leaving clothes on their bedroom floor, she was criticized for being emasculating. Similarly, when President Obama showed a flash of temper at the cops who arrested his friend Skip Gates, a jet-lagged middle-aged scholar who walks with a cane, no less, Obama was criticized for speaking out of turn.
As for the Edwardses, every relationship has its public mythology and private truth, and there is almost always a distance between the two. Do we really want to shrink that distance? I doubt it. At a time when half of all marriages end in divorce, we want those myths — maybe we need those myths. Maybe we should be grateful to those who are living a lie, because we as voters can't handle the truth.