John Edwards and the cost of indiscretion


Not-so-Dear John. (Chip Somodevilla)

“It doesn’t make any difference what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses,” said Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

True, true — unless you’re spending our money to do it.

Then we come rampaging in. One of the strangest themes to emerge from all the extremely publicized boudoir wrongdoing of figures such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, John Ensign and Mr. Edwards is the people who write in to the newspaper to say, “Forget the alleged assault! What was he doing spending $3,000 on a hotel room?”

This has happened more times than one might want to shake a stick at. From Strauss-Kahn on down, the amount of indignation is hard to predict when it comes to the actual offenses, but it varies directly with the amount of money spent. Rightly or wrongly, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s hotel bill has become as notorious as what he is accused of doing to the hotel maid. Three thousand dollars buys a precise amount of indignation, while the horror of his actions is harder to calibrate. Double the money, double the problems, as the Notorious B.I.G. might have inferred.

And based on the campaign finance-based criminal charges about to be leveled against John Edwards, it’s looking as though the same money rule applies.

His defense seems to be running somewhere along the lines of “Hasn’t the man suffered enough?”

Well, not really, in the eyes of most Americans. Given the option of a centipede in our bath or John Edwards, we tend to pick the centipede. John Edwards is the only politician less consistently popular than Levi Johnston. And that’s saying something, given that he has never appeared in a music video. Part of this, of course, is that he provokes all the consistent ire of Favorite Sons Gone Wrong. In terms of general life trajectory, he’s the closest we’ve come to Lucifer in a while. He used to be so compelling. Now the only compelling he does is making everyone evaporate from any room he enters.

But couple two parts charisma with eight parts rip-roaring ego, add a mystic videographer, lock into a dark room, and see what develops. He was the template to which Arnold, Dominique and other John never came close. He had more than they ever did to lose — and his wife was dying of cancer. No wonder we still look at him with a vitriol generally reserved for people who have done us personal wrong. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, if John Edwards invaded Hell, we would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.

Maybe we’d be able to forget what he did, although it’s unlikely at present. But if he used campaign funds to cover it up — well, Hell hath no fury like a public bamboozled. Put your hands where you like — but keep them out of our pockets.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".

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