By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The media and John Edwards

For the past few weeks, I’d been sort of half-paying attention as a few political observers — especially Mickey Kaus of Slate — ripped the mainstream media for not following up the National Enquirer’s stories about John Edwards’ affair. Frankly, I couldn’t bring myself to care, and I felt pretty much the same way last October, when the Enquirer broke the story.

Did anyone seriously doubt that Edwards had been screwing around? Did it matter? (Bipartisan alert: I say that as someone who’s perfectly happy that Larry Craig decided to stick around. His only mistakes were pleading guilty to toe-tapping and sounding like a schmuck in his public statements.)

In Edwards’ case, it took a caller to Howie Carr’s show on WRKO Radio (AM 680) yesterday to snap me back to reality. Her point: If the media had ripped the bark off Edwards last fall, when he was still a semi-viable presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee today.

Good grief. She was right. While Barack Obama was winning Iowa, Clinton was coming in third, behind Edwards. Though she came back and won the New Hampshire primary the following week, she never really recovered from that devastating opening round. And until Edwards dropped out, he and Clinton split the anti-Obama vote. (I will grant you that these things change quickly. Just a few months earlier, Obama and Edwards were seen as splitting the anti-Clinton vote.)

Now, I haven’t gone back and re-examined the post-New Hampshire results, so my logic may not be impeccable. Edwards did fade very quickly, so there probably weren’t too many Clinton votes that he soaked up. But to the extent that he delayed the emergence of the Obama-versus-Clinton steel-cage match, he helped Obama enormously. And it was in those early weeks that Obama won the nomination.

So, to return to my original question: Should the media have gone after the Edwards affair last fall? I guess I’d have to say yes, for a couple of reasons.

First, Edwards’ campaign was a serious one, as these things go. He had very little chance of winning the nomination, but his chances weren’t nearly as slight as those of, say, Chris Dodd. And whether we like it or not, sex still matters in American politics. It’s not the media’s job to decide for the rest of us that it doesn’t matter. (Nor should the media overplay it, as they did, most memorably, in the Lewinsky story.)

But whether you like it or not, many Americans want to know if their would-be leaders have been faithful to their spouses, and in that respect the media failed to report important information at a time when it would have mattered.

Second, there was the peculiar nature of Edwards’ appeal. It’s only a slight exaggeration to observe that his entire public persona, other than fighting on behalf of the elderly union folks who lined up behind him at televised rallies, was based on the idea that he had a great family, and that his wife’s battle with cancer had only brought them closer together.

It wasn’t true — or, at least, it was more complicated than that — and, thus, Edwards was engaged at some basic level in consumer fraud.

I first saw Edwards while covering the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000 for the Boston Phoenix. One morning, he spoke to the Massachusetts delegation. I was repelled by his smarmy unctuousness, and though I should probably let him speak for himself, I think it’s fair to say that my then-fellow Phoenician Seth Gitell reacted the same way. (Update: Seth weighs in, and I was right.)

Last night I went to bed rather than watch Edwards’ interview on “Nightline.” I figured if anything noteworthy was revealed, I’d hear about it and could watch it online later. But I read the statement Edwards issued, and like many, was fascinated by its icky self-absorption. Watching CNN last night, I thought Paul Begala might actually throw up in discussing Edwards’ self-pitying tone. Unfortunately, the transcript’s not up yet.

And how about Edwards’ wanting us to know that he never loved Rielle Hunter (turning “I never had sex with that woman” on its head), and that Elizabeth’s cancer was in remission at the time, so it was, well, not OK, but not as not-OK as it would have been otherwise? But I’ve ranged far afield of my original point.

Every day the media put their thumbs on the scale not just in terms of what they choose to cover, but what they choose not to cover as well. No doubt editors and news directors came up with a lot of high-minded reasons for not going after Edwards in October. I might have even agreed with them then.

But their decision — totally contrary to the way they handed similar allegations about Gary Hart in 1987 and Bill Clinton in 1992 — may have changed the outcome of the 2008 presidential campaign. No, they couldn’t have anticipated it. But that’s just another reason why they should have covered the story instead of covering it up.

Photo (cc) by Alex de Carvalho and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Bill Baar

    Axelrod’s the grand Engineer here… you can bet he had a deal going with Edwards on this one.He knows both Obama and Edwards well… …and you’re right MSM caved to want amounts to a conspiracy against HRC. Axelrod wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without them.Welcome to politics Chicago style…

  2. Bill Baar

    …not to mention the smear against Reille Hunter… who is really taking a character slam with Edward’s denying paternity… and goes into the healing process etc etc….

  3. Tish Grier

    I guess I see this thing in more human terms than political ones. Edwards was under a great deal of stress–a campaign that was faltering, a terminally ill wife, and lord knows what else. He stumbled and had an affair. So, his self-absorbedness could also be a defensive posture because, no matter what he said, he’d come out looking pretty bad. I think most people figure that when someone has an affair, there’s no particular “love” between the two people–esp. in a short-term affair such as this (or the Lewinsky affair) Anything that Edwards said about the relationship would have been turned upside-down and used against him. Even if he said the truth–which would probably be something more like “I really liked her. She listened to me. And she was hot.”And I seriously doubt that “ripping the bark” off of Edwards earlier would have mattered to HRC. Some folks (like myself) weren’t into a repeat of the Hill and Bill Show, nor did we want Hillary’s brand of feminism leading the country any more than we wanted to see a sweet-faced white boy and his bravely-soldiering wife get the nomination.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Tish: Early in the campaign I operated on the assumption that whoever emerged as the anti-Clinton would win. But her strong finish, even after it was clear that she couldn’t get the nomination, led me to think otherwise. Who knows?

  5. Mark

    First, let me just say that I can’t believe Tish could defend this guy!Second, I disagree that the media overplayed the Lewinsky affair. We were talking about a sitting president lying under oath about an affair that he had with a White House intern. Lying under oath is a HUGE deal for anybody, let alone the man charged with carrying out the laws of our federal government. Liberals don’t seem to understand it wasn’t so much the marital infidelity that we cared about, it was more the perjury.

  6. Outraged Liberal

    One other factor you forget Dan. Obama out organized Clinton in Iowa — and every other caucus state. She didn’t consider those states to be important. If she had, THEN she would have been the nominee.Hindsight isn’t always 20-20, but I suspect she would still have lost Iowa, whether Edwards was there or not.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Mark: When they say it’s not about sex, it’s about sex.Conservatives have never understood that it’s not that we liberals don’t care about perjury. It’s that we were appalled at abusive prosecutorial tactics that put Bill Clinton in the position of perjuring himself if he lied about his sex life.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Mr. O.L.: Obama ran a better, smarter campaign than Clinton throughout, and he may have beaten her anyway. But she’d have stood a much better chance of recovering if Edwards had been out of the way.If she’d finished a close second in Iowa, she might have been unstoppable.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: It’s possible that the Obama and Edward campaigns formed an alliance at some point. It was something people speculated about at the time. But last fall, the Obama folks were unhappy with Edwards, because he was interfering with their plan to make Obama the only serious challenger to Clinton. Am I wrong?

  10. O-FISH-L

    John Edwards current lying gives new credibility to what Bob Shrum wrote in “No Excuses” some years ago.”(Kerry) was even queasier about Edwards after they met. Edwards had told Kerry he was going to share a story with him that he’d never told anyone else — that after his son Wade had been killed, he climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, laid there and hugged his body, and promised that he’d do all he could to make life better for people, to live up to Wade’s ideals of service. Kerry was stunned, not moved, because, as he told me later, Edwards had recounted the same exact story to him, almost in the exact same words, a year or two before — and with the same preface, that he’d never shared the memory with anyone else. Kerry said he found it chilling, and he decided he couldn’t pick Edwards unless he met with him again.”Edwards is a real sick bastard. Period. BTW Dan, the only thing you missed on Nightline was Edwards shamelessly trying to spread the disgrace away from himself, supposedly recalling “John McCain talk about the mistakes that he’s made in his past with respect to his first marriage.” It was one of those, “Please don’t punish me Mommy, Johnny M. started it” moments. Begala wasn’t the only one ready to vomit.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: I do believe we’ve found a subject on which we can finally agree. I blogged on that very anecdote in May 2007, and had some hopes that Kerry would clarify the matter.He did not, which I took as confirmation, and as further evidence that Kerry is too much of a class act to lower himself to that level.The question is, why did the media give Edwards a pass last fall? I think the idea that they were protecting a fellow liberal doesn’t wash. My experience has been that Edwards is not well-liked by the press corps.My guess is that people in the media thought they were applying the lessons they’d learned from the past, when they went overboard on sex. Always fighting the last war.

  12. Bill Baar

    Dan…not the campaigns…just Axelrod and his former client Edwards… that’s the deal I suspect.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: That’s fine, but when? Are you saying that Axelrod had this deal in place in the fall of 2007? Wasn’t Edwards hurting Obama at that point?

  14. Nial Liszt

    “My guess is that people in the media thought they were applying the lessons they’d learned from the past, when they went overboard on sex.”Dan: Was this lesson learned before or after Larry Craig? If, oh say, Newt Gingrich-same level of “barely a celebrity”- ran from reporters and barricaded himself in a hotel garage restroom I don’t think it would be the same non-story.

  15. Dan Kennedy

    Nial: Try making sense. Craig pleaded guilty to a crime before the media ever found out about it. His hometown paper, we later learned, had been covering up for his behavior for many years.As I said, I don’t think Craig should have pleaded guilty to anything. But you’ve got a real apples-and-oranges problem with your logic.

  16. Bill Baar

    That’s fine, but when? Are you saying that Axelrod had this deal in place in the fall of 2007? Wasn’t Edwards hurting Obama at that point?I don’t know Dan. But it’s the question MSM should be asking now. Did Axelrod talk with Edwards folks? How often? When? It’s the angle that should be explored.There is a whole heck of a lot to be explained with this story.PS I like the new format.

  17. vivianne

    The media, which is in FACT controlled by conservative forces, has not mentioned that McCain is a self-confessed adulterer, that he ditched the wife who stood by him in his imprisionment and raised his kids — for an heiress whose millions would give him political clout. Edward’s sins are nothing compared to McCain’s. If the press were liberal as imagined by those fooled by it, this would be mentioned as a counterfoil in every story about Edwards.Tom

  18. vivianne

    The Republican claim of support for family values is pure sham.Eisenhower was guilty of adultery, everone knew this but the media was silenced.Former GOP-VP Rockerfeller died during adultery.The first (and only) US Secretary of State to brag about his many liasons (Henry Kissenger), was a Republican — and the media idolized him for it.Reagan was a self-confessed adulterer. Fully reported by Hedda Hopper at the time. Ignored by the national media when Reagan became a conservative GOP icon.Gingrich attacked Clinton for his stupid sexing around, but Gingrich was doing worse (old-fashioned adultery) with a gal. So were other key Republicans at the time.John McCain is a self-confessed adulterer, who ditched the wife who stood by him in his imprisionment and raised his kids — for a beer heiress whose multi-millions would give him political power. Our first divorced President was a Republican (Reagan)– and if it had been a Democrat, the issue would have been a major problem, but since it was a Republican, nothing was made of it by the corporate-controlled media.

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