One precinct captain's reflections on the John Edwards story

Like many people who volunteered for John Edwards last year, I’ve been working through conflicting feelings this weekend.

Natasha Chart voiced some of my frustration in this piece about our ridiculous standards of public morality. Ethical lapses that affect the lives of thousands or millions of people are not career-enders for politicians, but marital infidelity is supposed to be–if you’re a Democrat. Once again, it’s ok if you’re a Republican.

Many Edwards supporters are angry about the publicity surrounding this story. It’s infuriating to see journalists more interested in Edwards now that he has admitted to an affair than they were when he was a presidential candidate talking about substantive issues.

David Mizner loathes the “American sickness” of needing to know about the sex lives of politicians, adding:

I supported Edwards not because I loved him and not because I thought he had sex with only his wife. I supported him because I believe in progressive populism.

Many bloggers I respect, from TomP to MontanaMaven and RDemocrat made similar comments on Friday. After all, we were backing Edwards for president, not husband of the year.

Ellinorianne put it well:

What John did in 2006 has no bearing on Universal Health Care.  What happened in 2006 does not make poverty in this County any less of an urgent issue.  The corporate media would love to believe that what John did in 2006 would mean one less powerful voice talking about the strangle hold that corporations have on every facet of our lives in this Country.

Nothing can take away from these issues unless we let it happen.

On one level, I relate to what Ellinorianne wrote, because Edwards undoubtedly put topics on the agenda that would barely have been discussed had he not run for president. While he was in the race, at least one candidate was talking about the excesses of corporate power. After he dropped out, that issue disappeared from political discourse.

For that reason, I never regretted the time I spent volunteering for Edwards. Of course, I was sorry that Iowans did not give him the boost he needed in the caucuses. I was disappointed that I failed to deliver a third delegate for him from my own precinct. But watching the campaign devolve into identity politics in February and March, I was more convinced than ever that helping this longshot candidate was worth the effort.

These past few weeks have caused me to question for the first time whether I would back Edwards if I had it to do over again. Edwards’ policies and rhetoric were a necessary condition for my support, but they would not have been sufficient had I not also believed that he was the strongest general election candidate. Otherwise I could have backed Dennis Kucinich, who was even closer to me ideologically than Edwards.

Here and at other blogs, I advocated for Edwards as the most electable candidate because of his communication skills, his appeal to small-town and rural voters, his way of evoking broad themes in his answers to specific questions, and so on.

Speaking to potential caucus-goers, I often noted that Edwards had faced intense national scrutiny for years, making it unlikely that the Republicans could spring any “October surprise” on us.

Now I realize that the whole time, Edwards was hiding a story that would have reinforced the most devastating narrative about him: he’s a phony who talks about one set of values but lives a different set of values.

How damaging was this narrative? Last year I used to joke that if I ever came into possession of a time machine, I would go back and persuade John Edwards to hire Sarah Susanka (the Not So Big House woman) to design his Chapel Hill home.

It appears that Edwards had no game plan other than to hope that Rielle Hunter wouldn’t tell anyone and/or that journalists wouldn’t pick up on the rumors as long as he lied.

I empathize with Elizabeth Edwards, who wrote on Friday:

This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well.

I agree with BruceMcF, who observed that our country would have lost a great leader if sexual immorality had ended Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s career.

But presidential candidates have to run in the world that is, not the world that used to be or the world that should be. I simply can’t imagine how this affair could have remained under wraps throughout a long campaign.

To my mind, Edwards owed it to all Democrats to either step aside or find some way to make this story old news. I understand the desire to avoid a media circus, but it wasn’t realistic to hope that journalists would cover for him or that Hunter would keep a secret.

Responding to a commenter at Daily Kos, Elizabeth Edwards wrote on Friday:

Each of us has a day we wish we could take back. We are all imperfect beings, Denny. Here’s what I know, looking back: poverty, a truly aggressive and progressive environmental platform, universal health care would not have been part of the discussion if someone of force and vision had not been there to make them part of the conversation.

An imperfect man with a truly progressive vision who spoke to and for those whom others ignored? Yes, that is who I supported.

An imperfect man who had come to face his own imperfections and was seeking to redeem himself to those closest to him? Yes, that is who I supported.

With the Supreme Court and so much more riding on the outcome of this election, helping someone redeem himself to his family is not high on my priority list. Ultimately, I have to agree with Ezra Klein:

No one forces you to devote your life to national advocacy of important issues. But if you decide to do follow that path, with all the plaudits and moments of roaring applause it entails, you have to make certain sacrifices, and shoulder certain realities. Among them is that if you falter, you can harm all that you’re advocating and deny help to all whom you claim to represent.

If Edwards wanted to face his imperfections, he should have found some vague way to disclose marital problems that he and Elizabeth had worked through. Let voters decide whether that should be a deal-breaker or whether his potential contribution to American life outweighs the mistake.

If he could not bear to get ahead of the story, the least he could have done was to tell the truth when first asked about rumors of his affair. DrFrankLives (who has devoted far more volunteer hours to Edwards than I have) hit the nail on the head in this diary:

I want to know two things.  How the hell could you, a man who ran everything through a careful filter, allow that to happen during a political campaign in which so many people had so much riding on you?  And what the hell were you thinking when you denied it when asked about it?  You’re a lawyer.  You know that questions keep coming.  And nothing delights a cross-examiner like a false answer.

Which candidate would I have supported knowing what I know now? Probably I would have held out for Al Gore for a few more months. Maybe I would have settled on Chris Dodd or Joe Biden. Neither of them were as strong on my key issues as Edwards, though. I suspect that I would have come around to Edwards eventually if the affair had been revealed early in the campaign. It wouldn’t be the first time I voted for someone who was unfaithful to his wife.

Had I known that Edwards was recklessly hiding a story with the potential to destroy his campaign, I would have found a different candidate for sure.

What makes me more angry than anything else is that this scandal appears to have derailed Elizabeth Edwards’ plans to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. We need her voice on health care reform.

Feel free to share your own reflections in the comments.

About the Author(s)


  • I was also

    a volunteer and presinct captain for Edwards in Iowa (Ankeny).  In 2004, I supported Edwards because I thought he could win….a southern senator who seemed like a person that could appeal to Republicans and Independents.  I continued to follow him until 2008 and I was pleased see that he was driving the debate in the party, especially in poverty and health care.  And even though he appealed to a lot of the base of the party, I still felt he could have cross appeal.

    My reaction was more of one of embarassment.  I had pushed Edwards on a lot of people by saying that he was right on the issues, plus he seemed like a good guy.  I might have caucused for him if I had known about his background, but I certainly wouldn’t have contributed or volunteered.  And I might have looked harder at a Biden or maybe Obama.

    I talked to my mom last night.  Her and my Dad were both Edwards caucusers as well.  She was mad.  Almost like you would be with a friend.  She can’t understand how he (and really Elizabeth) could have put the party at risk.  If he had been the nominee, we would have lost the election.  And it’s kind of humilating.

    Overall, I am just sad.   This cycle I always felt like John was running for Elizabeth.  I felt like she was kind of driving his positions.  It didn’t go unnoticed that she was the only spouse that didn’t complain or have any reservations about being the First Lady.  So I almost feel like that she was the one pushing him to run despite of the affair.

    I think the real damage he did was that he was the first candidate that I supported whole-heartedly.  And because I was betrayed, he’ll likely be the last.  It just isn’t worth it.

  • Another precinct captain here...

    John Edwards made me believe there were good guys in politics.  Not only was he right (in my opinion) on almost every issue, he just seemed incredibly sincere and like he wasn’t afraid to speak the truth.  I keep thinking back about something he said often in the last days before the caucus.  I won’t try to quote him, but the gist was that we had to thoughtfully consider each of the candidates and decide who we trusted and judge them all “up or down.”

    I am sad, I am angry, but probably the worst thing is that I know I will never stick my neck out again for a politician.  I devoted hours and hours of time to his campaign.  I often brought my kids along when I was canvassing or attending events.  I had campaign workers stay in my house.  I donated a decent chunk of money.  Never again.  

    If he had admitted the affair when first asked about it, he could have taken his lumps and we all could have moved forward.  It was unbelievably selfish and disrespectful of him (and Elizabeth) to cover this up while running for POTUS.

    His candidacy brought many issues to the table and for that I am thankful.  Does that redeem him?  No, as far as I’m concerned.  I always told people it was all about the issues, but you know, the messenger matters and the messenger can’t be a fool.

  • Have been gone

    A couple of comments.

    As an Edwards supporter of ’04 who turned into a fairly vocal critic of him in ’08, this was not the type issue I expected to bring him down.  And I think that is what made this story such a big media thing.  This time around, Elizabeth and John’s relationship with her became on integral part of the Edwards candidacy storyline.  Even though I started to think of Edwards as an opportunistic phony, I always thought his great relationship with Elizabeth seemed genuine.  I suspect I was not alone with that view.  Because of that, the affair story was such big news.  I don’t think the newsworthiness of this story has anything to do with him being a D.  Conservative anti-gay advocates getting caught in gay sex scandals have been just as newsworthy.

    The fact that Edwards decided to go ahead with his campaign strikes me as simply nuts and confirms his lack of judgment for me.  Like Desmoinesdem says, you have to operate in the real world.  Every thinking person must have realized the explosiveness of this story if not revealed early on.  Like it or not, that’s reality.

    I’m also curious about how you Edwards supporters feel about Hillary’s campaign folks saying today that Hillary would have won Iowa, and the nomination, had Edwards not been in the race.

    • months ago I started working on a diary

      which I may resurrect, about whether and how Edwards or Clinton could have beaten Obama in Iowa.

      I am not convinced that Hillary would have won if Edwards had not run or been destroyed by this scandal. A significant number of Edwards supporters were anybody-but-Clinton. Some would have gone with Hillary, but many would have preferred Obama or a second-tier candidate.

      Maybe Biden or Richardson would have been viable in more precincts, and Obama still would have beaten Clinton. In my precinct, possibly both Biden and Richardson would have had enough support to cross the 15 percent threshold without Edwards in the mix.