ALLAN JEFFERYS: Have We Rewritten the Rules on What Morality Means?
My first reaction upon hearing of the John Edwards affair was one of sadness, followed by a determination not to pile on in any attempt to out-tabloid the tabloids.
The sadness was not for Edwards' political career. In my book, that was ended long ago. No, this sadness was for his family -- especially his wife, who has had more than her share of burdens.
I felt and still feel that the story should have been printed (it was revealing news) and then dropped. We had no need to delve further into the problems of John Edwards. Why, then, am I bringing it up again? Partly because the story won't go away and partly because of remarks made by Edwards' supporters.
His defenders were quick to suggest that Edwards should be praised for his courage and honesty in admitting to the affair.
My dictionary must be askew. Is the definition of honesty now an admission to a lie you got caught in? Is courage the trait you acquire when you are backed into a corner? When did all of this redefining come to be? The answer might well be when Bill Clinton defamed the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky and then went on to beat an impeachment and leave office as a hero who commands super fees for speaking and super fees for writing a book.
As for Edwards, I had written more than four years ago that we had hired a man to be our senator who seldom showed up for work and spent our money campaigning for a job for which he had no qualifications. I think the same may be said of Barack Obama, but that is another topic.
Edwards and Clinton are far from unique in their marital cheating -- which leads us to wonder: What has happened to our ideals of integrity? Is everything OK as long as we toss out a few mea culpas? Are we so concerned about throwing out the first stone that we dare not accuse and disapprove? What we really censure is not so much the sin (for want of a better word) but the "where" and "when."
If Bill Clinton did his act with Monica Lewinsky in your home, you would have every right to be furious and vindictive. Well, the Oval Office is part of the people's house and should thus be off-limits for hanky-panky. So, in Clinton's case, the "where" was the key to our indignation.
In Edwards' it is the "when." When he admitted the affair to his wife, he still continued to run for president. Which means that if he had been nominated before the story broke, he would have been dead in the water. So, in addition to his family, he would have let his party down. Maybe ethics is not in this trial lawyer's dictionary.
I know of no one personally who is in a position to moralize. I recognize that, although I am of an age that remembers when ethics, morals and integrity were major words in our vocabularies and lives, they were also standards broken by the mighty perhaps as often then as they are today.
At our house, we recently watched the three DVD series base on David McCullough's brilliant and powerful biography of John Adams. One of the most interesting aspects is how little we as people have changed since our nation began. Greed, avarice, lechery, dishonesty and loud anger were all prevalent in 1776. We would like to think that these founders were above ill temper, fears and shaky confidence, but they were not.
Perhaps human beings are destined not ever to change. Maybe that is where the phrase "he's only human" came from. The John Edwardses of the world were right there in Philadelphia. Given that, we can understand -- and in time, perhaps forgive.
Or can we?
We are back to the "where" and the "when." These are not the keynotes to behavior, these are the keynotes to when behavior is mandatory and foibles are unacceptable and inexcusable.
When you embark on a profession or career or campaign, you must do so with the certain knowledge that some things are off-limits. If the priest cannot contain himself around young boys, he must renounce the priesthood; if the teacher cannot exercise control around students, she must not be in the company of students.
We all know the boundaries and know why straying is forbidden. Centuries cannot alter the "where," and circumstances cannot change the "when." John Edwards is intelligent and street-smart enough to have known that. He should also know that this sort of thing attracts a spotlight. That others have preceded his fall and share his shame does not excuse him. He is finished with politics and must now contend with his family.
Certain caveats and responsibilities come with the territory. If you cannot live with the restraints, choose another occupation.
Allan Jefferys, a former New York theater critic, entertainment editor and newsman, lives in Pinehurst. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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