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10 years later, Edwards is Clinton

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2008

There is obviously no way to quantify this, but I regard Bill Clinton as the most thoroughly humiliated person in all of human history. Who else even comes close?

On Sunday, it will be 10 years since that astonishing day a sitting president gave a nationally televised address in which he admitted that, yes, he'd had a sexual relationship with a young intern, and that all his previous statements to the contrary - to his family, to the media, to the nation - were baldfaced lies.

You gazed upon that astonishing spectacle, gazed upon the utter debasement of the highest public official in the land, and you said that here was an object lesson to which other public figures were surely paying close attention and from which they were surely drawing the obvious lessons: Keep it in your pants, boys; in an era where media are 24/7, 365, and that old gentleman's agreement you once had with them to keep private peccadilloes private has long since vanished, there is no woman fetching enough, no sex amazing enough, to justify such complete and utter humiliation.

This belief was, of course, naive.

We soon learned that Jesse Jackson wasn't paying attention. Nor was former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Or Sen. Larry Craig. Or Motown Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Last week, another name was added the ranks of the obviously inattentive: the golden boy himself, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Edwards admitted in an interview with ABC News to having had an affair with a woman hired to shoot video for his most recent presidential campaign, and lying repeatedly about it when asked by reporters. It turns out the guy was stepping out on his wife "while she was battling breast cancer."

There are those who will say this is much ado about very little. Note that even when President Hefner was going through his tribulations 10 years ago, public support for him remained strong. His partisans are fond of pointing out that when Clinton lied, nobody died, their way of jabbing his successor for multiple mendacities and serial bungling in the War on Terror and reminding us that Clinton's sins were "only" about sex. Every man strays, they say, and every man lies about it.

Even if you buy that rather demeaning formulation - I don't - it still doesn't follow that these are transgressions of minor importance. Because the issue is neither straying, nor sex, nor lying. It is doing all of the above while living a public life. When you are an individual whose face is known, who is followed daily by cameras, whose whereabouts are monitored, how deluded must you be if you think you can keep a secret sweetie secret?

Moreover, what does that delusion say about your judgment? Does it not suggest a recklessness, an arrogance, a staggering self-centeredness appalling in one who purports to be a leader? Does it not suggest that you can project only to the limits of your own immediate gratification and to hell with everyone else?

Bill Clinton was not, after all, alone in his humiliation. No, he dragged his wife and daughter through it with him. At the time, John Edwards told reporters he felt betrayed by Clinton's behavior. "Any American should be bothered by it," he said. "What the president did was wrong. It was totally wrong. What he did was take a really bad situation and make it worse by not telling us the truth about it."

Ten years later, Edwards is Clinton. Not just because he strayed, nor just because he lied, but because he chose to ignore the eminently foreseeable cost of doing so - if not to himself, then to his wife and children, whose only sin was to love him and to believe.

Be thankful this man never became president. If he could not put his family's interests before himself, where do you think he would have put ours?

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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