If I had to choose between George W. Bush, naked and neighing on all fours while being ridden around the Oval Office by a spurred cowgirl Condoleezza Rice, or enduring his shredding of domestic and international law to wage an illegal war and bilking of the country on behalf of his corporate backers, I could learn to stomach a wide array of sexual escapades.
Let our elected leaders and candidates have quick homosexual encounters in airport bathrooms, bring as many hookers as they want to their hotel rooms, and screw around with their campaign staff as long as they exhaust their libidos on lusts other than war, torture and economic mismanagement. Adolf Hitler, after all, was an abstemious and monogamous vegetarian who loved his German shepherd.
But, unfortunately for us, and hapless politicians like John Edwards, our press finds it more lucrative to report salacious sex scandals than the death and maiming of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, although the mainstream press showed, for once, a remarkable restraint until Edwards was forced to confess. We hear more about pricey hookers and the bathroom code of cruising homosexuals than the revoking of habeas corpus, the use of torture as an interrogation technique, and the plundering of our country by rapacious corporations. Television dominates our news content, and its ethical standards hover around those of the National Enquirer.
The press has become our arbiter of personal morality. Have an affair and they will trap you in the middle of the night in a Los Angeles hotel bathroom; they will dig up the escort you met in a Washington hotel room and splatter your private foibles across television screens and news pages. These stories gratify our prurient fascination with illicit sexual liaisons. They are part of the blurring of news with the tawdry world of reality shows and television entertainment. They produce titillating rituals of public humiliation and disgrace. They also lacerate the secret guilt of those who have felt or acted upon lust while in committed relationships. It is all Jerry Springer, all the time.
Reporters often know the sins of which they speak. They can shame John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig and Bill Clinton and then head off to a hotel bar to do the same thing. The moral lapses of our media inquisitors, which I witnessed for over two decades as a reporter, can be as reprehensible as the behavior of those they cover.
I do not trust or believe most politicians. I have covered too many. The question is not how we can get good people to govern. The question is how we can limit the damage of mostly mediocre, callow men and women, who comprise the majority of those who yearn for power, from doing the most harm. This comes through the rigorous checks and balances of a functioning democracy, not self-appointed political saviors. But we always prefer saviors, those who make us believe they have attained moral and heroic summits that elude us.
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There is something sad and pathetically human about Edwards' affair and his cowardly attempt to lie about it. I never liked Edwards. He is all flash and sparkle with his boyish $400 haircuts and oily sincerity. He preached a faux populism, one at odds with his record in the Senate, to sell himself to voters. But, even as I do not condone what he did, I feel sorry for him. He is being crucified by journalists and politicians, and a public, who often behave no better.
We demand that our politicians play superhuman roles. They cannot exhibit the weaknesses and temptations we carry within ourselves. They must appear to be perfect parents, wives or husbands. We insist that they behave like the idealized couples we watch on television or in the movies. Campaign appearances, with the dutiful spouse as prop, are scripted mini-dramas. We live in a society so saturated in lies that we can no longer distinguish between a married couple in a sit com and on the campaign trail. Bill and Hillary continue to act out their sham roles of committed husband and wife. And, despite all the evidence to the contrary, people continue to believe in the Clintons' charade.
Political leaders no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities. The most essential skill in political theater, which has no room for knowledge or debate or trust, is artifice. Those who are most able to entertain, that is, to deceive, succeed. Those who cannot play these roles, like Ralph Nader, are pushed to the sidelines.
There are worse things done by politicians than illicit sexual adventures. Ask an Iraqi. Ask an Afghan. Ask a detainee at Guantanamo. Ask an unemployed steelworker in Ohio. But in an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not want honesty or even reality but the reassurance of old clichÃƒ©s, stereotypes and mythic narratives. We want leaders who are willing to pretend they live in a make-believe world of happy couples and perfect relationships. We want to feel that they like us and we want to like them. This gives us what television gives us, a simplistic narrative around which to frame our lives. This narrative defies the messiness and disorder of the real world. If politicians adhere to this ridiculous narrative of personal happiness and fidelity, designed to reassure us that the world is ordered and neat and constant, they can commit egregious war crimes and strip us of our power. If they do not we will find better actors.
Edwards' dishonesty does not compare to Bush's impeachable crimes. But Edwards' political career has been cut short, unlike Bush's, because he had the bad luck to get caught out of character behind the curtain.