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.