The reaction was swift, brutal, and yes hypocritical from Democratic Party big wigs to the public talk about John Edwards love tryst. Dan Fowler, former Democratic National Chair, minced no words and flatly said that if Edwards can't satisfactorily explain his conduct he won't be allowed to deliver a major talk at the Democratic national convention. Fowler punctuated his Edward's slap down with the demand that Edwards meet high moral standards in explaining his conduct.
What gibberish! The Edward's affair has to rank at or near the top of the worst kept secret in any top politician's love life. The National Enquirer had the story a year ago. Every top news dailies had the story. Political gossip wags had the story. And most importantly, Edwards campaign staff, Democratic Party insiders, and probably Republican operatives had the story. Yet, now it's a big deal and the Democrats are hoisting themselves high on their moral high horse and demanding that Edwards do a very profuse penance and very public self-flagellation. One reason for this has much to do with Edwards as potential VP candidate. The other has even more to do with Edwards as the one Democrat who actually talked about and believed that the time was ripe for a return to populism in politics. Neither set well in some very heavy weight public and political circles. To be blunt, Edwards made a lot of friends but he also made a lot of enemies.
He made enemies because he did something that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, nor any other top Democrat dreamed of doing. He made poverty no longer a dirty word in the mouths of many. But Edwards didn't stop there. He relentlessly pushed the envelope on America's next greatest crime and sin, the absolute refusal of the nation to provide decent health care for more than fifty million persons no matter whether poor, working class, middle class and even some with a few bucks to spare. He didn't stop even there. He hammered corporate and special interests for their shameless and unabashed pillage, loot, and rape of American consumers.
Edwards was truly a modern day Jeremiah crying in the wilderness against poverty, corporate greed, and the health care abomination, and predictably was slandered, slurred, and ridiculed, and ultimately marginalized as a bare after thought, a warm up act to Clinton and Obama.
Edward's much needed and almost never heard populist message didn't mark him as a threat. The bare possibility that many Americans actually got his message about poverty and neglect made him a threat. The seeds of the attack were there from the start. He had barely stepped out of the barber salon early in the campaign when the pokes and digs started. He was the butt of laughs and late night TV talk show gags for committing the unpardonable sin of blowing $400 on a haircut.
The barbs and the taunts didn't stop even after he shrugged it off as fun and games stuff. Months later David Letterman took another hair shot at him when he grabbed at his hair and tried to muss it up during his appearance on Letterman's late night show. This slapstick silliness wouldn't have raised an eyebrow since he is a wealthy guy who made millions as a corporate lawyer. But it was the poverty thing that raised the hackles of his rich pals. This was not just a cheap campaign ploy to give him an edge over the other candidates. He made the case that nearly forty million poor people in the world's richest country is an abomination that nobody seemed to want to talk about it, let alone do anything about it. It was irksome enough that the GOP presidents and presidential candidates would stay silent on the plight of the poor. It was downright infuriating that his Democratic opponents would also stay mute on the issue.
His poverty crusade stirred a mild flutter for a couple of months with Obama and Clinton. But again it was only a mild flutter. Any talk of a crusade against poverty disappeared from their campaign lexicon faster than a Houdini disappearing act when he dropped out of the White House hunt.
Edwards became the first Democratic presidential candidate to go where no other Democrat has gone in four decades and talked up poverty, universal health care and economic democracy.
Edwards apologized to his wife, apologized to the party, and did his public mea culpas for a hardly damnation of the ages private misstep. But he also did something else. He bucked history, negative public and political attitudes, and of course ridicule for championing populist causes. If that's not real moral decency, than the term is empty and meaningless. Democrats can show some moral decency by not kicking Edwards under the bus.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).