It's probably a coincidence, but just a day after John Ensign's presidential explorations were ended by news of an affair, John Edwards is in the Washington Post with his first lengthy interview since his own infidelity came to light.
It's only a year and a half since Edwards pulled close to a third of the Iowa caucus vote, narrowly beating Hillary Clinton. He struggled on another month, but the game was really over after Iowa. It was always gonna come down to Hillary vs. Not Hillary, and he lost that competition to Barack Obama.
Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a third of Iowa Democrats willing to say they were with Edwards. Part of that is natural; everyone likes to say they were with the winner after the fact. But most of it is John Edwards' pariah nature since the revelations went public.
Back in January I assembled a slide show for our local inauguration party, documenting the two year run-up to Election Day 2008. I went through my literally thousands of shots and faced the dilemma: what do we do with John? I had some great shots of him, and included some, but found myself telling the Edwards part of the story through other photos. Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. Tim Robbins. Local supporters. And as much Elizabeth as I could get.
That's why John Edwards has become persona non grata, while other cheaters have suffered less damage. People took it more personally because they knew and liked Elizabeth Edwards so much.
Usually the spouse of the cheating politician is almost invisible, appearing only as an anonymous humiliated prop at the press conference. Mrs. Vitter, Mrs. Craig. There are exceptions of course, most obviously Hillary Clinton. But Bill's actual infidelity was trumped by the partisan overkill of impeachment.
And Bill Clinton's persona was in part defined by his excessive appetites. We knew about the "bimbo eruptions" almost as soon as he walked onto the national stage, and we voted for him anyway. But the John Edwards persona was as much sincere as it was blow-dried, and once we didn't believe he was faithful to Elizabeth... we had trouble believing anything else.
Getting caught cheating in itself doesn't seem to be a career killer anymore; that barrier fell between Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. It seems like the new standard is Cheating Plus. I cheated with a hooker or I cheated in the cruise bathroom at the airport. Ensign gets a trifecta: 1) I cheated 2) with a staffer 3) whose husband was blackmailing me.
But the real champs are:
New Gingrich survived "I cheated on my wife with cancer" where John Edwards didn't. Part of that is Gingrich's shamelessness vs. Edwards' sincerity. But a bigger part may be the first Mrs. Gingrich's anonymity (Jackie, I had to look it up) vs. the high-profile Elizabeth Edwards. Caucus goers remember that at every event every event where Elizabeth was absent, John began the speech with an obligatory "Elizabeth's doing great" reference. The crowds to get handshakes and autographed books were nearly as big around her as they were around him.
In a sense, when we found out John had cheated on Elizabeth, we felt like he had cheated on us. And that's why his rehabilitation will be so much tougher than others.