John Edwards’ fall

John Edwards’ fall

The cause of combating poverty continues stronger than before

Okay, for those of us who hadn't long since it figured out, we now know the truth: John Edwards is a flawed and, at least when it comes to some matters, certifiably boneheaded human being. Little more than a decade after it started, the former senator's meteoric political career is at an end or, at a minimum, on course for a long, long walk in the wilderness.

So what do we progressives – many of whom found ourselves frequently cheering Edwards' economic populism and championing of the underdog – make of all this? 

Should we take the bait spread by right-wing fulminators like the head of the John Locke Foundation (whose recent diatribe against Edwards sets a new standard for morbid glee at the downfall of another human being) and commence a partisan mudslinging match by listing all the moralistic conservatives who've committed marital infidelities and hidden sexual peccadilloes? "Oh yeah, well what about McCain's admitted affairs (and Newt Gingrich's and David Vitter's prostitute and Larry Craig's wide stance and Mark Foley's text messages, and…)?" Should we start digging into the rumors that have surrounded various conservative politicians and political figures in Raleigh through the years?

Or, conversely, should we slink away into the weeds? "Well, doggone it, that does it. Edwards was a lying rascal and a hypocrite so therefore everything he said about poverty and economic justice must've been a big lie too. And even if it wasn't, his personal treachery has screwed up the movement for years to come, so we might as well pack it in. Darn, all that work for nothing!"

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is a resounding "no."

Flawed messengers

Make no mistake; John Edwards was a flawed messenger. Almost every progressive advocate who fights the fight on a regular basis in North Carolina has known this fact for as long as Edwards has been on the scene. He was latecomer to politics, a policy novice and a non-team player who used his money and good looks and powerful communication skills to leapfrog a host of hardworking and deserving politicians and would-be politicians.

We knew it and accepted it as part of the modern political deal. Even if we never felt the affection for Edwards that many in the general public did, we were willing to accept and embrace his mid-life conversion to the cause of progressive politics for a couple of obvious and overriding reasons: 1) on many key issues, he spoke the truth and did it as well or better than anyone else on the political scene, and 2) his gifts and beliefs gave him a tremendous potential to do good for the country and the planet.    

So now we know that at least part of Edwards' shtick was a façade – his personal life wasn't all that he would have had us believe. Add to this the fact that he lived in a big house and had a lot of money. Does this mean that he was a "phony," a "creep," and "a deceptive and dangerous schemer" in all things as the Locke Foundation would have us believe? More to the point, does that mean that the policies and ideals he espoused are somehow tainted because he (a prominent messenger) has some serious personal issues?

Of course not.  If society discounted the words and insights of every person that has engaged in some form of personal or professional treachery in their lives, we would have precious little to go on.

Just because Richard Nixon was a paranoid criminal doesn't mean that his overtures to China and the old Soviet Union or his call for a guaranteed minimum income and other domestic innovations were without merit. Just because Ronald Reagan was either a liar or suffering from some kind of pre-dementia during Iran-contra and other scandals of his administration doesn't mean that his calls for amnesty for undocumented immigrants and the elimination of all nuclear weapons were wrong. And just because Bill Clinton was apparently a serial philanderer, that doesn't make his insights about balancing the budget or ending the war in the Balkans without loss of an American soldier wrong. Many good messages are often delivered by flawed messengers.

Powerful messages

None of this is to excuse Edwards (or Nixon or Reagan or Clinton) or to argue that egregious incidents of personal or professional dishonesty shouldn't sometimes disqualify a person for a position of public trust. While it's clear that Americans overdo it when it comes to demanding wholesome and flawless personal lives for their leaders (both because of our fixation with tabloid sensationalism and because it's simply easier to sit in judgment of a candidate's personal characteristics than it is to invest the time to really understand the issues) personal honesty is certainly relevant. And though it was not the ultimate undoing of his campaign, Edwards' infidelity and dishonesty about it would (and probably should) have disqualified him had it come fully to light six months ago.

As important, however, as honesty is in the personal life of public figures, it's critical that we not make the mistake of trashing the truths that Edwards did speak during his time on the stage. Despite his all-too-human personal behaviors, Edwards spoke the truth about the obscenity of modern American poverty and economic inequality. He spoke the truth when he shined a light on the fact that a tiny and shrinking percentage of Americans controls nearly half the nation's wealth. Indeed, the fact that he was a member of that elite group and still spoke out probably inures to his credit.

(As an aside, it seems worth noting the hypocrisy of the attacks of those on the far right who would have undoubtedly congratulated Edwards for his personal fortune and success had he espoused views more to their liking.)

Most of all, Edwards spoke the truth when he called upon Americans to pull together to fashion public and intentional solutions to these problems and when he confronted the fallacy of the market fundamentalist ideology that holds that the pursuit of personal greed is the solution to all that ails us. He may not have always practiced what he preached, but much of his preaching was still on the money.

Going forward

The good news in all of this is that despite Edwards' personal transgressions, the right wing's efforts to transfer the taint to his messages about poverty and economic justice are lame and destined to fail. Not only was Edwards successful in helping to jumpstart some new and potentially useful anti-poverty efforts that were (and are) separate and apart from his political campaign, it's also clear that his truth-telling has breathed life into a number of pre-existing organizations and causes.

The fact that John Edwards has ceased to be a viable public voice really doesn't matter so much now that terms like "living wage" and "income gap" are a part of the lexicon. Now that the truth has been revealed (and has become so patently obvious to any thinking person who cares to look at it), it's not terribly important that one of those who helped draw attention to it turned out to have some significant personal flaws. As lawyers like Edwards sometimes like to say: "res ipsa loquitur" ("the thing speaks for itself").

As for Edwards, at this point, it's hard to imagine his political career ever being resurrected. Indeed, in light of his personal and family challenges, he would be better off doing right by his wife and children for the foreseeable future.

Still, he is a relatively young man with important gifts. It would be a tremendous waste if he didn't put them to the service of the cause he espoused so effectively. Let's hope that in years to come that, like millions of other imperfect humans before him, John Edwards finds redemption in rededicating himself to the battle for economic justice and, perhaps, by getting down in the trenches he bypassed earlier in his career.

And progressives? We'll just keep doing what we've been doing – appreciative for the boost Edwards provided the cause and committed to speaking a truth that's bigger and stronger than any flawed politician. 

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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