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Catching the Wrong John: Why Are the Media Talking about John Edwards' Infidelity If They Aren't Going to Talk about John McCain's?

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My first thought upon hearing Friday's "big news" on all the cable stations -- straight from the pages of the nation's leading investigative newspaper, the National Enquirer -- that John Edwards had been caught with his trousers down, was, "Oh, no, what if this cuts into the story of that little girl who disappeared whose mother hasn't seemed to figure out that someone is recording her jailhouse telephone conversations and putting them on the news! How will I ever get the news I need tonight?"

Let me be clear. I'm not a proponent of infidelity. As a clinical psychologist, I've seen its corrosive impact on many a marriage. But Edwards isn't running for president anymore. He's not running for Pope as far as I know. And he's not even a sitting elected official. To watch Larry King interview two "journalists" from the National Enquirer on his show Friday night was as pathetic as seeing the Edwards affair on the front page of the New York Times. If the media ran stories on every former or sitting elected official who ever had an affair, those stories alone would fill the news or sports sections of every newspaper (depending on how they classified them).

Rationalizations for Running the Story

I know what you're going to say. "He was running for president, and had he won the nomination, imagine what that would have done." True enough, and for that reason perhaps the story merited a migration from the Enquirer to the coupon section of the print edition of some newspaper somewhere. What he did was unbelievably reckless for a man who was running for president and could have put the Democratic Party in real peril had he won the nomination. And to paraphrase another Democrat who wedded restlessness with recklessness, Edwards should not have had financial relations with that woman, his videographer. All fair criticisms.

But Edwards didn't win the nomination. Personally, my primary feeling is sadness for the Edwards family. This would be tremendously difficult in private. It must be excruciating in public.

But this is an issue of character, you say. After all, he lied. But every affair involves deceit, and denying the affair is what people confronted with infidelity usually do, as they see their marriages potentially crumbling before their eyes -- and that's without the glare of the camera. It's not clear in this case (as in other such high-profile cases) to what extent Edwards' original denials were primarily motivated by self-protection, protection of his wife and family from humiliation, protection of his gonads from an angry spouse, or, most likely, all of the above.

So is lying about an affair a good predictor of other forms of deceit and corruption in office? By all reports George W. Bush has been faithful to his wife. If only he had been so faithful to the Constitution, the American people, and those silly little things we have in this country called laws.

But Edwards' infidelity was even worse because of the circumstances. His wife was ill. How could he do such a thing?

That's a compelling question, and those without sins should certainly cast their stones. An equally compelling question, however, is how the media humiliating his wife publicly in the final years of her life at this point serves any purpose than selling papers and boosting ratings. The man's children are already dealing with their mother dying. Do they really need to know -- and to know that everyone who ever meets them will know -- this level of private detail about their father's indiscretion?

As someone who has practiced psychotherapy for 25 years, there's one thing I've learned: that it's a lot easier to judge than to withhold judgment. Life isn't easy. Most people try to live good and decent lives, and most people fail at many points along the way. If fidelity over decades of marriage were so easy, I suspect more people would practice it.

What's Sauce for the Donkey out of the Race is Sauce for the Elephant in the Room

But this media "affair" raises a more serious question. If John Edwards' infidelity is news, and he's not a candidate for anything, why isn't John McCain's? He reportedly had numerous affairs in the years after returning home from Vietnam to a beautiful wife who had been disfigured in a car accident, and ultimately, by his own reports, he zeroed in like a laser on beautiful a 25-year-old heiress upon meeting her one evening in 1979 while he was still married, promptly lied to her about his age, and almost as promptly left his wife for her. We all extol John McCain for enduring 5 years of extreme hardship in Vietnam. But aren't his first wife's circumstances much like Elizabeth Edwards'? After all, the first Mrs. McCain waited in agony (and presumably fidelity) during those five long years for her beloved husband to return from Vietnam, raising their children while he was away and undergoing dozens of painful operations herself, only to be repaid by a philandering husband who ultimately left her for a younger woman.

Now personally, I don't think anybody's sex life has any bearing on a campaign, except to the extent that the candidate runs as a hypocrite, extolling family values, fighting gays while fighting his own gay demons, etc. But John McCain is increasingly making this campaign about character, and his actions over many years suggest some worrisome patterns that fly in the face of the entire story he tells about himself. Setting aside his cheating on his first wife, what about his attending to something other than the people's business as a member of the Keating Five (and ultimately contributing to a bailout that cost middle class American taxpayers the equivalent of nearly half a trillion in 2008 tax dollars -- imagine the middle class tax break we could offer if we weren't still paying off the principal and debt on that boondoggle); or hiring the most dishonest, amoral campaign team money could buy in 2008; or generating one fabricated or grossly misleading charge after another against Obama in the last three weeks (as in his sleazy new tax ad where, for example, he says Obama would raise taxes on small businesses when Obama has never proposed anything of the sort)? Like George W. Bush, he doesn't seem like a man who once was lost but now is found. He seems more like a man's whose principles are soluble in self-interest.

The Obama campaign seems reluctant to attack McCain even when the attacks are both true and on point, such as his standing on every side of virtually every issue, so they certainly won't go after his private life. Nor would I recommend they do so, unless McCain continues to raise issues about Obama's character, in which case Obama might want to take a public shot over the bow to let McCain know that if he wants to make this election a referendum on character, he can do that, but it would not be in his interest. McCain would get the message, and I suspect he would call off the dogs. Similarly, if McCain tries to mobilize anti-gay sentiment, or (more likely, since I suspect he's more libertarian at heart) colludes with those who do, it would be perfectly fair to ask him where in the Bible God prioritizes homosexuality as a sin over adultery, since there's a Commandment about one but not the other, and adultery is a far greater threat to the institution of marriage than gay people entering into committed relationships (McCain's first marriage being Exhibit A).

Washing the Media's Mouth Out with Soap

In any case, the media either need to be an equal-opportunity Enquirer -- in which case if John Edwards' infidelity deserves three or four days of media attention when he's not even running, McCain's deserves three or four weeks -- or they need to grow up. Personally, I vote for the latter. If the media decide that McCain's sexual transgressions, like virtually all Republican transgressions as long as they're heterosexual, are unworthy of media attention, they should do some serious soul searching about why they went after Edwards, and they should stop reporting on the sex lives of politicians in the future, whose personal foibles and frailties are none of our damned business.

And that leads to a final point. I have long thought that we need a watchdog on the watchdogs. Like most Americans, I watched in horror as the impeachment process was abused in 1998 with the complicity of a ratings-frenzied media that made a fortune turning the Congress into a reality show and the grand jury system into an adjunct to The People's Court. We now have a watchdog: the blogs. I suggest we use the blogosphere to teach journalists a lesson about privacy, humility, and humiliation, and put them on notice that if they continue to practice gutter journalism, bloggers will publish the same data kind of data on them that they publish on politicians. After all, journalists' objectivity is of the essence, and if they're purging their own sins by attacking them in others, the public has the right to know. And surely journalism requires the same level of honesty as public service.

So call it empathy training. My guess is that media enthusiasm for sex scandals would drop within days of the first report (replete with photos) on the sexual indiscretions of a television news anchor or reporter, and that the kind of rationalizations we have heard for two decades---"we had to cover it because the newspaper that brought you 'Woman Gives Birth to Four-Headed Reptile" was covering it -- would disappear as fast as you can say "zip it."

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 election.