09/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Edwards, George Washington and Hypocrisy

The central issue in John Edwards downfall was his hypocrisy.

And thank God!

In our morally-relaxed universe, hypocrisy is still an unforgivable sin.

Moral standards about adultery appear to be changing, it's true. The growing percentage of Americans who have had affairs contributes to the lack of an absolute American standard of marital (and extra-marital) sexual behavior.

This makes fidelity a mine-field for those in the public domain.

But demonstrable hypocrisy is still completely unforgivable, especially in a politician.

Events surrounding the demise of Eliot Spitzer provide a fine example. Gov. Spitzer was vilified --correctly, I believe-- for pretending to be a public paragon while in his personal life he was a bareback, closet sleaze.

Spitzer's sleaziness was only made worse by the fact that he had a liaison with a call girl on Feb 13th before returning to his role as a dutiful, loving husband on Valentine's day.

The hypocrisy of New York's former governor cost him dearly, and it is in sharp contrast to the route taken by New York's current governor.

On assuming office, David Paterson took the painful option of revealing that both he and his wife had had extramarital affairs in the recent past, but that they had renewed their commitment to each other and were trying to work things out.

Paterson's choice characterizes contemporary integrity and smart politics. John Edwards choices characterize neither.

Edwards relied on his wife's illness to garner public sympathy, and then lied and continued lying to cover up his affair with another woman: (let's be charitable and imagine this began as a frightened reaction to a surprise confrontation on camera, one that threatened to expose him immediately).

On the other hand, David Paterson revealed his personal failings well before the press tumbled to them. In this way, he diffused the issue despite the fact that he -- a married, public figure -- had slept with a woman other than his wife.

Paterson gambled that because adultery was no longer the pressing issue of Nathaniel Hawthorne's America, it was not one that could bring him down in 21st Century New York.

But he also knew that any act of undisclosed hypocrisy had that power.

Okay, the world has changed a bit. Contraception is readily available and there is no stigma these days about divorce or blended families. Also, a majority of adult women are now unmarried. I hope I won't shock anyone if I imagine that some of these grown-up Americans do not always sleep alone.

We're living longer, healthier lives and sexual adventure is celebrated publicly on our TV shows. In America, temptation and opportunity are greater than ever before...

Nonetheless, George Washington is in our blood, and we still can't stand liars and hypocrites.

I think this is why George W. Bush no longer has any credibility in America or in the world at large. Without mentioning 'hanging-chads', it's clear the lesser Bush lied openly and often about Iraq's WMDs. Too many American soldiers and too many Iraqi civilians died because of that costly, cheap lie. Because of it, no one respects George W. Bush anymore. Certainly not Vladimir Putin.

Moreover, hypocrisy is what eventually cost Bill Clinton the goodwill he'd accumulated during what I think history will remember as an otherwise responsible presidency.

Finally, hypocrisy on an operatic scale is why we continue to think of Tricky Dicky as a modern version of Old Nick, America's home-grown devil.

Well, I'm glad America is getting laid more frequently these days. But I'm even happier that the country has retained its distaste for liars and cheats. I hope we apply these standards to the current Presidential contest in which, I believe, the same issue of integrity separates the candidates into opposites as widely opposed as Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.

I only have to say Charles Keating and Vicki Iseman for you to see what I mean.

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