After months of media and suburban coffee-klatch speculation, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards confessed to fathering a love child with his ex-mistress, Rielle Hunter. In a statement released to NBC’s Today Show, the 56-year-old Edwards said, "It was wrong for me ever to deny she was my daughter and hopefully one day, when she understands, she will forgive me."
Though it came to a close on an unabashedly milquetoast morning program, the story of the Edwards-Hunter affair was tawdry enough that it only made sense for the National Enquirer to break it. After meeting Hunter in a bar in New York in 2006, Edwards soon began a relationship with the actress-turned-film-producer. Hunter (born Lisa Druck) had a litany of pseudonyms and was once the inspiration for brat pack author Jay McInerny's Alison Poole character, a troubled nymphomaniac. Edwards had a wife struggling with breast cancer. Eventually, while campaigning for president in 2007, Edwards impregnated Hunter. And the rest, as you well know, is juicy tabloid fodder.
The public loves a cheater, if only to stridently admonish him. But Edwards seems to summon from the hoi polloi a particularly high level of ire. His haircut and demeanor bray pretty-boy diva. Unlike Tiger Woods, who was young and whose marriage was relatively new when he stepped out of it, Edwards was supposed to be old and wise, and faithful to the woman he'd been with since they were at the University of North Carolina together. Furthermore, Edwards' fling seemed particularly unseemly. When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford cheated on his wife, he came clean almost immediately and called his mistress his "soul mate." He seemed so honestly in love and openly, truly conflicted that you couldn't help but feel sorry for the guy. Edwards, on the other hand, was sneaky. He once hid out in a bathroom stall to avoid reporters after a late-night hotel tryst with Hunter. And even after confessing his infidelity, he then continued lying about the paternity of Hunter's child, once going so far as to ask an aide, Andrew Young, to say that the baby was his. On top of all that, all this mendacity was taking place while Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, battled one of the deadliest cancers in existence.
As you might expect, the media dog pile on Edwards has been swift and unyielding, from both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives are lapping up the opportunity to demonize a former Democratic golden boy, while liberals are doing what everyone in politics does when their teammate fails grandly: distancing themselves from the mess with words like "scumbag" and "bastard," and reminding everyone that Republicans have affairs, too. If we're speaking honestly, it's been utterly shameful to watch. Because although what John Edwards did—to his wife, to his mistress, to his daughter, to his staff—was stupid, ugly and profoundly selfish. Any progressive person taking to the Internet or their social circle to write Edwards off for good is progressive in name only, and they should consider the company they're keeping when pillorying him for his sins.
It makes sense for Bill O'Reilly to call Edwards a "dishonest snob" in the wake of his mistress scandal (despite the fact that Bill himself once paid millions in an out-of-court sexual harassment settlement). You can set your watch by the pronounced but fabricated rage danced around Fox News when a Democrat takes a tumble. But when the Daily Kos fanatics join in on the beating, one can't help but wonder what their definition of "liberal" is.
In my estimation, a real progressive need have only two things: a belief in forgiveness and an understanding that there are no absolute truths. I'm not sure that I would get an abortion were I a pregnant woman, but I don't begrudge women who do, because I have no idea what their realities are, what truths shape their world and their decisions. I think drug addicts should go to rehab, not jail, because I forgive them for poisoning themselves, and I don't believe that what they're doing is necessarily good or bad—it just is. I don't support the death penalty because, if anything in America represents the unforgiving nature of human beings, it's that.
Forgiveness and understanding are the cornerstones of the progressive movement, but good luck finding anyone currently willing to apply those principles to the John Edwards scandal. Instead, it's all name calling and moralizing.
John Edwards made a lot of poor choices during a tremendously difficult period in his life, and that's unfortunate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the trail of destroyed emotions he left in his wake. But liberals discussing Edwards' affair with judgmental superlatives need to realize that absolute truths and vengeful motivations are what cause people like Pat Robertson to say that the devil-worshiping Haitians had it coming. They're what tighten the fists of gay bashers and narrow the eyes of racists. And "scumbag" is closer to the N-word than you might imagine.
Cord Jefferson is a regular contributor to The Root.