The True Verdict on Edwards

As someone named Hayward argued yesterday in Politico, the Edwards case was weak and a conviction would have opened up a huge can of campaign finance worms going forward.  The whole campaign finance world is too over-regulated already.  Like the case against Ted Stevens in 2008, this appears another example of egregious abuse of prosecutorial discretion by the Justice Department.

But we still can’t help but agree with the front page of the glorious New York Post this morning:

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JOHN adds: I agree with the Haywards that criminal prosecution under the campaign finance laws was not the appropriate response to Edwards’ conduct. But I think a little more should be said.

Edwards is, of course, a skunk. But he isn’t only a skunk; he was the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2004 and the party’s third-leading presidential contender in 2008. Edwards is a young man, and it was not at all unreasonable to think that he could be president someday, even after Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton finished ahead of him that year. When Edwards went to the seemingly-insane length of persuading a campaign aide to claim that he was the father of Edwards’ illegitimate child, it was not just because he was afraid of his wife’s wrath. This, after all, is not Italy in the 1950s; divorce is a realistic option. No, Edwards was trying to preserve his viability as a presidential candidate or, failing that, a nominee for Attorney General.

And, as crazy as his stashing of his mistress and child now seems, if it had been up to the Washington Post and the New York Times, he would have gotten away with it. If criminal prosecution is overkill for Edwards’ offenses, it is in part because we assume that there are informal constraints at work so that high-ranking politicians who are guilty of extraordinary levels of dishonesty–we are not just talking about infidelity–will be exposed and discredited. But that didn’t happen here; or it wouldn’t have, but for the National Enquirer. In Edwards’ case, there most likely would have been no prosecution but for the Enquirer, and it was the prosecution rather than any extensive news coverage (independent of coverage of the criminal case) that informed most people about Edwards’ failings.

Consider the lengths to which the Washington Post recently went to reveal that Mitt Romney cut another boy’s hair when he was in high school. Imagine the hundreds of people the Post must have interviewed, covering every stage of Romney’s life. (The Post didn’t want to go back nearly 50 years to find something they could hang on Romney, but they evidently couldn’t come up with anything more recent.) If the paper could learn, and inform its readers, that Romney cut a fellow student’s hair 47 years ago, why couldn’t it figure out that John Edwards was stashing a mistress and child with an aide who falsely claimed to be the girl’s father, and using rich campaign contributors’ money to do it? Not 47 years ago, but last month?

The answer, of course, is that the Post (like the New York Times and virtually all other newspapers, news magazines and television networks) had no desire to dig up information that would be harmful to Edwards–just as they had no intention of learning or publicizing facts that would be damaging to Barack Obama. The Edwards case reveals breakdowns of two kinds that are more or less opposite. There was a breakdown in the Department of Justice, because criminal laws that don’t really apply and are far too draconian to fit the case were brought to bear. But equally important, there was a breakdown in the media, as reporters and editors scrupulously averted their eyes from a scandal that would have damaged their favored party, until the National Enquirer forced a grudging level of coverage. (The parallel to Drudge and Monica Lewinsky is obvious.) The latter breakdown, it seems to me, is more threatening to our democracy than the former.