I’m sympathetic to the argument that John Edwards’s affair is none of our business. Personal moral failings should generally remain private matters, even public figures are entitled to a reasonable zone of privacy, and reporters conducting stakeouts in hotels to root out infidelity is at least distasteful, if not incompatible with my first two points. But a lengthy affair that involves a potential love child — I find John Tabin’s dissection of Edwards’s denials persuasive — is in a different league. That alone is something we ought to want less of in public life. Worse, the details of the affair — the amount of campaign resources that went into covering it up, the hush money, his wife’s cancer — do tell us things about Edwards’s character that the public has an interest in knowing.
Given how central Edwards’s family and his wife were to both his presidential campaign and his personal narrative, finding this out is along the lines of discovering that the ambitious trial lawyer enriched himself and impoverished others by using bogus science, or finding out that Edwards went from being a Southern moderate in Bill Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council mode to just four years later being the liberal second coming of Bobby Kennedy, or learning that Edwards strongly supported the Iraq war when it was popular and just as strongly opposed it when that became the popular position. In other words, it is part of a larger pattern of Edwards being a fraud, someone who makes Clinton’s phoniness seem like one of Holden Caulfield’s rhetorical excesses. Maybe if Edwards had already been a washed-up pol before this story broke, the media’s reluctance to run with it would have been justified. Since Edwards might have played a significant role in the next Democratic administration, it’s a legitimate story.