NPR logo John Edwards And The Role Of The Media

John Edwards And The Role Of The Media

By telling his tale on national TV, John Edwards' private life became a legitimate story. hide caption

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Gary Hart, whose presidential hopes were ruined amid the discovery of his dalliance with Donna Rice, was greeted with this button when he re-entered the race in 1988. hide caption

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My new prediction for Obama's running mate. hide caption

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Twenty-eight years ago today, President Carter was renominated for a second term at NYC's Madison Square Garden. hide caption

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I'm asking for trouble by focusing on this subject, but there's no escaping it.

Following John Edwards' admission that he had an affair — after long denying such reports as "tabloid trash" — cable television and the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the country were filled with the story. There are so many questions that come out of all this that I don't know where to begin.

First off, let's make it clear that these are the same newspapers and TV programs that refused to touch the story about the former senator and presidential candidate when the National Enquirer first reported it last October. Or to follow up when, two months later, the tabloid reported that the affair had resulted in a child, who Edwards insists is not his. "It's the Enquirer, for goodness' sake," was our common refrain. "We don't do that kind of stuff," we told ourselves. (Or at least when the only source is the Enquirer.) The truth is, we want to. And I'm trying to figure out if we should or when we should.

The most important question here is what I think is the most basic: Is it anyone's business, besides his family, that Edwards had an affair? I would say no. There are scores of far more important issues out there that the media need to focus on. Not who's sleeping with whom. It may be titillating, but that's why God created the Enquirer — so we don't have to touch it.

Ignoring The Whispers

And so, despite the rumors, despite the efforts by the Enquirer these past 10 months, we ignored it completely. Reporting on the Edwards campaign in Iowa, we focused on his plan to deal with poverty, his views on ending the war in Iraq, his hopes of surpassing the superstar candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Frankly, I didn't even know about the whispers about Edwards back then; until recently, I was actually making the case for him as Obama's running mate. That's when I first began hearing the rumors.

Then came the second Enquirer blockbluster, published on July 22: The tabloid's reporters confronted Edwards coming out of his girlfriend's Beverly Hills hotel room, at some godforsaken hour of the night, whereby he fled to a public restroom and was escorted out of the hotel by security guards.

Here's why I think we should care. Let's say Edwards won Iowa and was going to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Or let's follow the scenario I envisioned, that Edwards would wind up on Obama's ticket. Let's say that the story broke, late in the campaign. I am convinced it would have ended the Democrats' shot at winning the White House.

With so much at stake, it is silly to simply say this is a private matter that's nobody's business, when we all know it theoretically could have affected the course of the nation for the next four years. We can be as holy-minded as we like when it comes to stories like this, and argue until we're blue in the face that the American public doesn't care about things like marital infidelity. But I think it does. And in instances like this, with so much at stake, it should.

I will argue that staying away from the story when all we had to go on was the Enquirer was the correct path to take. But once Edwards went on national television to admit to the affair, that's when it became a legitimate story.

A Familiar Situation

It reminds me of the Jan. 26, 1992, interview conducted of Bill and Hillary Clinton on 60 Minutes by correspondent Steve Kroft. There had been the claim made by Gennifer Flowers that she had had an affair with Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, for some 12 years. If you were around at that time, you surely thought there was at least a kernel of truth to Flowers' claims; after all, stories about Bill Clinton and other women went back many years. Still, it wasn't something we needed to cover. But once the Clintons went on 60 Minutes — to categorically deny Flowers' allegations while at the same time acknowledging "difficulties" in their marriage — it became a story. Fast-forward to 2008. By telling his tale on national TV, Edwards made his private life a legitimate story.

I received an e-mail this week from a regular reader who said, in apparent seriousness, that this should not disqualify Edwards from becoming Obama's running mate, or at least from serving in an Obama administration. I'm not so sure. The more I sat and watched Edwards on Nightline, the more I felt there were more questions than answers.

First, there is no one who is not aware that Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, is suffering from incurable breast cancer. Her public fight against this disease has touched millions of lives. Is the American public really going to accept Edwards' "explanation," which I thought bordered on the obscene, that his 2006 affair with Rielle Hunter occurred while Elizabeth's cancer was in remission?

And second, Edwards' national finance chair in his two runs for the White House, Fred Baron, says he gave Hunter "assistance" to get her out of North Carolina and into a $3 million mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif., so she could escape the hounding of reporters following her. Baron says he never told John Edwards. Edwards said he had no knowledge of any money paid to Hunter. This defies belief. Assuming Edwards was fearful of the affair's becoming public, wouldn't he wonder how she could just find her way from the Tarheel State to a gated community in wealthy Santa Barbara? And he never talked to Baron about this? Puh-leeze.

As if that weren't surreal enough, this week came the statement by Howard Wolfson, the former communications director for the Hillary Clinton campaign, that had the media done their job and exposed Edwards prior to the Iowa caucuses, Clinton — not Obama — would have won the caucuses and gone on to win the nomination. Aside from the dubiousness of that conclusion — I suspect that most Edwards supporters would have gone to Obama before voting for Clinton — the thought of the Clinton camp calling on the media to expose the sexual shenanigans of a candidate defies belief.

I end this with no more understanding of what the role of the media is supposed to be than when I started. We explained our coverage of the David Vitter and Eliot Spitzer scandals by talking about hypocrisy. Vitter campaigned in Louisiana as a pro-family conservative, only to be outed when his telephone number was found among those called by an escort service. Spitzer was the crime-fighting prosecutor in New York who sent people involved in prostitution to jail, only to be exposed as a customer himself. But were we using the charge of hypocrisy as an excuse to obsess about these sex scandals? I honestly don't know.

Two Americas

Edwards is right, in a sense, that there are two Americas. Only not the way he envisioned. One America believes he is telling the truth and is willing to forgive him. The other insists that there are too many unanswered questions for Edwards to re-enter public life anytime soon. I suspect the latter America is more sizable.

And what better way to end this than with a quote from Edwards, who had this to say about Bill Clinton in 1999: "I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen."

VP PICKS: My rambling thoughts about John Edwards pushed back a more detailed article about whom I expect to be the two major party running mates. Here's my latest: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the Republicans and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island for the Democrats.

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY: Recent key state and congressional primary results.

Georgia (Aug. 5): Former state Rep. Jim Martin easily defeated DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones in the Democratic Senate runoff and will face Sen. Saxby Chambliss in November. Jones, a conservative African American, had narrowly led the initial Dem primary in July but failed to win a majority of the vote.

Kansas (Aug. 5): Former Rep. Jim Slattery won the Democratic primary to take on two-term Sen. Pat Roberts (R). Jim Ryun's bid for a rematch with the woman who in 2006 ended his decade in Congress, Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-2nd Congressional District), was thwarted in the GOP primary. Ryun was narrowly defeated by state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins. Boyda is considered to be one of the most vulnerable Democratic House members in the nation.

Michigan (Aug. 5): State Rep. Jack Hoogendyk Jr. is the GOP nominee against five-term Sen. Carl Levin (D). Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-13th CD) owes her victory in the Democratic primary to the fact that she had two opponents who split the vote. Kilpatrick's troubles center on her steadfast support for her son, Kwame Kilpatrick, the embattled mayor of Detroit, who is under indictment for eight felony counts and has spurned demands that he resign. Kilpatrick won but 39.5 percent of the vote, compared with 37.5 percent for ex-state Rep. Mary Waters and 23 percent for state Sen. Martha Scott. Kilpatrick is nonetheless an overwhelming favorite to win a seventh term in November in her Detroit-based, solidly African-American district.

Missouri (Aug. 5): Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-9th CD) won the GOP gubernatorial primary, narrowly defeating state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. He will face state Attorney General Jay Nixon (D) in November for the job being vacated by Republican Matt Blunt after one term. Nixon, the attorney general for the past 16 years, had unsuccessfully run for the Senate in 1988 against GOP incumbent John Danforth and again 10 years later against Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond. Competing to replace Hulshof in the House are former state Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) and state Rep. Judy Baker (D).

Tennessee (Aug. 7): Bob Tuke, a former Democratic state chair, won his party's primary to take on Sen. Lamar Alexander. Freshman Rep. David Davis (R-1st CD) was narrowly defeated in the GOP primary by Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe. Davis had initially come to Congress via his victory in the 2006 open-seat GOP primary, which he won with 22 percent of the vote against 12 opponents. Roe, one of those 12, fared better this time; he is a clear favorite to win in November. Much attention was focused on the Democratic primary in the Memphis-based 9th CD, a black majority district represented by freshman Steve Cohen (D), who is white. Cohen faced a primary challenge from businesswoman Nikki Tinker, who is black and who ran a most controversial effort attempting to link the liberal Cohen to the Ku Klux Klan and having her allies distribute blatantly anti-Semitic fliers. Cohen won the primary with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

Colorado (Aug. 12): The race to succeed retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R) will be between Rep. Mark Udall (D-2nd CD) and former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R). The Dem nomination to succeed Udall in the solidly Dem district went to businessman Jared Polis. The GOP nomination to succeed retiring Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) in the solidly Republican 6th CD was won by Secretary of State Mike Coffman. Freshman Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-5th), thought to be in trouble, was easily renominated against two opponents.

Obama-Larocco button with picture of Larry Craig

BOISE WILL BE BOISE: Tony Baltes is a longtime friend who runs Tigereye Design, an advertising specialties company out of Versailles, Ohio, that produces among other things Democratic campaign buttons. Many of the buttons that have appeared in this column over the years came from Tigereye. Here's one that people will be talking about for quite some time: It's a picture button of two politicos, under the slogan, "Change We Can Believe In." Below that is a map of Idaho. According to the script, it features photos of presidential candidate Barack Obama and Idaho Democratic Senate candidate Larry LaRocco. The problem: Someone at the Tigereye factory, looking for a photo of LaRocco for the button, inadvertently used one of a different Larry from Idaho: Larry Craig, the retiring Republican senator who is known for things other than change we can believe in. Once again, Tony graciously came through, sending us this button to illustrate in the column.


MEET THE CHALLENGERS: Back in 2006, we initiated this feature, by which we asked for you to send in campaign buttons for candidates for the Senate, House and governor. Our end of the bargain — aside from satisfying Ken Rudin's button craze, which is bordering on the unhealthy — would be to feature the candidates in a "meet the challenger" section.


This week: Nick Leibham, a Democrat running in California's 50th CD, and Collins Bailey, a Republican in Maryland's 5th CD.


Nick Leibham, Collins Bailey buttons


Democrats seem to be growing in confidence about the chances that Leibham, an attorney, can upset Rep. Brian Bilbray (R), who returned to the House in a 2006 election following the resignation of convicted GOP incumbent Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Leibham says Bilbray has taken more than $160,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, an issue he is focusing on at a time of rising gasoline prices. He is also calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2009. Though Bilbray has yet to make himself entrenched in his suburban San Diego district, Leibham has an uphill battle ahead of him.


If Leibham is a decided underdog in the California race, it's a tougher hill to climb for Collins Bailey, who is challenging Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) in Maryland's 5th. Bailey is a 54-year-old businessman and elected member of the Charles County Board of Education who sports the endorsement of Texas Congressman Ron Paul. If elected, Bailey promises to "cut wasteful spending, reduce the size of government, and promote sound money, individual responsibility, economic and personal liberty, American independence and national sovereignty." He is opposed to abortion and "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and supports gun ownership.


Want to see your candidate's campaign button appear in the next column? And, at the same time, make Ken Rudin happy? Send your 2008 buttons to Political Junkie, 635 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001.




Aug. 19 — Primaries in Washington and Wyoming. In Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) is running for a second term. Wyoming has two Senate races featuring two incumbent Republicans: a regularly scheduled one (Mike Enzi), and a special one (John Barrasso, appointed to fill the seat of the late Craig Thomas).


Aug. 25-28 — Democratic National Convention, Denver


Aug. 26 — Primaries in Alaska, where the indicted Sen. Ted Stevens (R) is up for re-election, and Florida


Aug. 27 — Lyndon Johnson's 100th birthday


POLITICAL JUNKIE EVERY WEDNESDAY AT THE NEWSEUM: It's been several months now, and yet there are still people who don't know that my "Political Junkie" segment, which appears every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), is before a live audience at the Newseum, Washington's new interactive museum dedicated to journalism. It is located at 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., off Sixth Street.


Want to be part of the live audience? The tickets are free. And you get to see what Ken Rudin looks like in person, a worrisome proposition in any case. Send an e-mail request to


This week's special guest at the Newseum was independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.


Remember, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can hear the program on the Web or on HD radio. And if you are a subscriber to Sirius radio, you can find the show there as well (siriusly).


IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly podcast. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here. Want to subscribe? It's easy, and it's free! Simply go to the iTunes Web site, type in "It's All Politics," and you're there.


******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********


This day in campaign history: President Jimmy Carter accepted the Democratic nomination for another term at Madison Square Garden in New York. But the half-hearted show of support on the podium by his defeated rival, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), portended a divided party going into the general election against Republican Ronald Reagan (Aug. 14, 1980).


Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: