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Facing some unpleasant facts about John Edwards

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George Orwell, in his essay "Why I Write," noted that even as a kid, he thought he would be a good journalist because he had "a way with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts." I first heard about Orwell's quote from author Paul Fussell, an essayist and critic who is no stranger to facing unpleasant facts himself. So I feel in good company to publicly face some unpleasant facts of my own — namely, that someone I and lots of other American progressives backed for the presidency was disgracefully undeserving of that backing. Of course, I mean John Edwards.

Like a lot of liberals, I supported Edwards in the 2008 presidential primaries. Just to be clear about it, I strongly supported John Edwards. I found it exciting that the Democrats had a real contender who based his campaign on issues of economic and social justice. Edwards was the first to bring up health care as a major issue during the 2008 campaign, and his detailed platform pushed Obama and Hillary to address the issue more forcefully than they otherwise would have.

When Edwards dropped out of the Democratic Party race after Obama and Hillary pulled away from him, it was a big disappointment. But that letdown was nothing like the feeling that came later — the affair with the goofball (and now Charlotte-based) filmmaker, the denials, the baby, the alleged sex tape, the abandoned and now martyred wife (not to be melodramatic, but that's how many saw it and still see it). It was all so unbelievable, it was hard to process the depths of Edwards' fall for a while. In the end, "disappointment" isn't an adequate word for what I felt; I don't know that any words are adequate. Liberal friends and acquaintances who have talked about Edwards say pretty much the same thing.

Edwards was my candidate from the get-go, and not just because his 2004 VP run made him a natural choice for his party; his positions on the issues were close to mine, and his wife Elizabeth was solid as a rock. At the same time, though, I couldn't help but notice that Edwards' 2008 positions were considerably more liberal than those he adopted in his '04 campaign. When I saw that his campaign manager had led Howard Dean's 2004 bid, the thought ran through my mind that Edwards was possibly just parroting what his campaign pros told him would win the most progressive votes in the early, largely liberal, primary states. I eventually shrugged those thoughts off, however. After all, Edwards did have a strong legal background of defending victims of corporate malfeasance, and his eloquent emphasis on battling poverty in America was so clearly sincere (wasn't it?), I put aside my doubts.

One thing I was sure of: I understood things about Edwards that explained his populist views and progressive outlook. I knew where he came from; I knew because we came from similar places. He was a South Carolina native and a baby boomer. He was familiar with the area's tenacious, rough-and-tumble mill culture. And, like me, he grew up seeing firsthand, living evidence of how Roosevelt's liberal policies had helped lift this desperately poor region and its people out of the economic mire. I was particularly struck when Edwards showed the famed mill culture skepticism about "the bosses" while debating health care reform with Obama and Hillary. Obama said he wanted to get all the stakeholders in the health care debate, including insurance and pharmaceutical companies, "together at the table," and hash out an agreement. Edwards got a wicked smile on his face and calmly told Sen. Obama, "I've successfully fought these people in court, and I can tell you, you cannot 'nice' these people to death — they will fight reform tooth and nail." It was the kind of stubborn, economically progressive resolve I remembered hearing from many folks who were in both Edwards' and my background. And Edwards was something — a white, liberal Carolinian — that I nearly couldn't believe actually had a chance of making it to the Oval Office. So, yeah, I was a big John Edwards supporter. Still, I thought, the guy sure seemed awfully slick; but hey, I told myself, he's a trial lawyer so what'd I expect? Talk about not facing unpleasant facts ...

Normally, politicians' sex scandals come and go without raising my give-a-damn meter — unless it's some hypocrite who is caught doing something he has railed against publicly, like anti-gay Sen. Larry Craig in the airport bathroom. Otherwise, I've always felt that politicians' sex lives are their own business and generally irrelevant to governing.

When Edwards' shenanigans were revealed, however, he instantly became the exception to my usual "who cares?" attitude toward politicians' philandering. I have no idea whether Edwards broke campaign laws, and it's almost beside the point, to me at least. My shiny liberal warrior for economic justice and health care reform turned out to be even more of a selfish egomaniac than most high-level politicians, and that's doing something. Cheating on your wife is one thing, but to cheat on a woman whose charisma and public battle with cancer are pillars of your campaign — while you're posing as a devoted family man, no less — was, finally, unforgivable, even for someone like me who long ago gave up the idea of politicians as possible role models.

As Amanda Marcotte wrote in The New Republic, Edwards' downfall was more than just a personal disaster. It was, and remains, a loss for progressives, too. Marcotte pointed out that Edwards, pre-scandal, was in position to become a strong voice for progressive views within the Obama administration, "making the economic concerns of ordinary Americans central to their political agenda." In the end, losing an in-the-loop advocate for liberal policies could be the greatest price paid for Edwards followers' willingness to overlook our occasional doubts about Mr. Slick. The ghost of Orwell may be smiling at this point, but Edwards and his former supporters, including yours truly, are having to face up to some really unpleasant facts.

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