John Edwards and the Impossible Ethical Standards

WASHINGTON – We know what happened regarding the disclosure of former Senator and former would be Democratic party nominee John Edwards extramarital affair. There was the expected mini media earthquake and non stop coverage, at least for a while. Edwards caught in the act. Edwards hiding in a hotel bathroom. Edwards possibly had a child from his lover. All this while married and while his wife deals with breast cancer. A mix of juicy and sordid stuff. Hence the media feast. Edwards is finished. For now at least. For later, who knows. He may undergo therapy, self-examination, repentance and come back better than new. This is also a familiar segue to stories of personal misconduct.

Still, while the script is familiar, the real, important but not debated question is: why this story should have, as a matter of course, a political dimension? Indeed, why? This is garden variety adultery. An issue between Edwards, his wife, his lover and may be others. But why does this story immediately create political consequences? “Well, –many would say– because it reveals something important about the man’s character. He deceived his wife, thus he may deceive the Nation. Besides he lied about it”.

Oh well….Isn’t it a bit too much? True, any aspect of a person’s life reveals something about their character. But if anybody who had an affair should be disqualified from positions of high or even modest responsibility, then we would have a real problem. This is not to say that the issue does not exist. It does exist. But can we automatically translate someone’s marital infidelity into a definitive conclusion that this person is unfit to govern? This is silly. Or, rather it should be regarded as silly in a normal environment.

But the point is that in the United States of America we do not have a “normal environment”. Politics in America is not just about figuring out the most cost effective public policies that can benefit as many citizens as possible. Quite often, politics is a lot more about moralizing than about policies. And, case in point, John Edwards’ message was mostly about moralizing. It was about the plight of the poor and the downtrodden, the other America, the America forgotten, left behind, hopeless. Well, whatever the resonance of his message with the Democratic primary voters, (not much, judging by the numbers), Edwards was a preacher/politician.

From this angle, his rather human failings disqualify him from preaching while being a politician. He has lost the moral high ground. He cannot grandstand anymore, because he got caught (almost literally) with his pants down.

But if we could imagine a different context, a context in which the ability of someone to hold public office is based primarily on competence, this whole business of personal conduct, in issues that have nothing to do with public policy, should be looked at in a different light. Let us assume that Edwards had proven qualities of brilliance as a chief executive, would this extramarital business disqualify him, if we all agreed as a society that his love life and how he handles it, is his personal business? No, his personal conduct, (unless it were criminal), should be irrelevant.

But we are not in that different context. While there are real life debates about nuts and bolts issues in America, featuring people who aim at finding practical solutions to real life problems, somehow, politics, especially at the highest level, is about moral guidance. And one cannot be a moral leader, unless his/her personal conduct is totally without blemish. Any blemish, (unless theatrically revealed and atoned for, before one starts preaching) diminishes or denies the moral credentials. The understanding that human beings are imperfect and fallible, somehow does not apply to would be political leaders. The fact is that the people, the voters, seek reassurance along with competence. And sometimes the reassurance coming from someone who feels morally superior and who projects this aura of being some sort of prophet is more important than any real or presumed competence.

Of course, no one denies that leaders have to be inspiring. But there should be a limit to what should be expected in that department. Whereas here in America passionate speeches that call us to a higher duty are mistaken for political talk. And this explains the Barak Obama phenomenon. Passion, good delivery and a novel persona (half black and half white) accompanied by the declaration (made by himself) that the country is in a deep crisis, thus he cannot wait any longer, has been enough to propel an unknown politician to the national scene, giving him enough momentum to defeat all the others.

But what was the magic ingredient? He was propelled to the national scene by being different and talking passionately, with a fervor that has a distinct preaching flavor to it. People were not impressed with his record or his past achievements (slim at best); but by his passionate call to totally reform, change and transform the whole of America. Others of course have come along in the past with similar messages of total change; but this did not get them very far. Obama is different and he comes in a different package. But the basic point is that if the adultery story had had him as protagonist, he would be history, just like John Edwards. His credentials as prophet in chief would crumble, and with that his moral claim to be a new leader.

This is what we get when we mix a way of moralizing and preaching that applies to religious leaders and political skills. The outcome is not so good. The fact that someone can use his/her record in their personal life and their beliefs and passions as a political qualification is a mistake as it introduces extraneous elements in a context that is primarily about other things. Which is not to say that the moral qualities of people who want to be in public life are not relevant. They are relevant. The fact is that would be policy-makers should not be appreciated because they talk like saints; nor should they be held to impossible standards of sainthood. The notion that we need moral perfection as a prerequisite for anybody aspiring to high office is ridiculous. In fact it is worse than that, it is damaging to the nation. It causes many talented people to stay away from public life, because they would not subject themselves to a level of scrutiny that does not exist elsewhere in the rest of society.

In the meantime the lesson for John Edwards, for all the others who think that high office is a church pulpit and for the public willing to accept this confusion is: “Distinguish between moralizing and policy proposals. If you want sound public administration, examine the policies that are on the table. If you want to deliver or listen to a sermon, go to a church”.

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