If John Edwards is a true believer in the public private distinction that will be used to shrug off his affair, then he should still hang his head for the fact that he was willing to put his party and the nation on the pyre. It is one thing to have an affair. Life is very hard and there is a degree of forgetfulness in the erotic. But to have a tryst when you know as well as anyone that the knowledge of it will torpedo a presidential election, well, that is more than a peccadillo.
Let's be clear. Bill Clinton can set his jaw, wag his finger, and moralize as much as he likes but he galvanized the right and put George Bush House in the White House when he indulged in his bizarre sexcapades with intern Monica Lewinsky, lied about it, and then refused to step down as president. Forget the private issues, they are between Edwards, his wife and children. But the former North Carolina senator ran for president acutely aware that word of his affair was banging to get out of the closet.
Since the truth has slipped out, Edwards has already begun chastising himself for his narcissism but I hope part of the charges that he holds against himself include the self-reproach that like Bill Clinton, he somehow or other took himself to be so important to the nation that it was worth the risk to run for president even though he knew it would be lights out for all kinds of people and causes if his affair came to light.
Most big-time politicians are peacocks with egos and a need for love and attention that is to the psychological realm what Everest is to the geographical. Still, these Napoleons need to be reflective and restrained enough to understand that if they are going to have a liaison then they have to have character enough to ice their political ambitions.
Those who take these private matters seriously on a political level do so on the premise that character, which as Aristotle taught has everything to do with judgment, is manifest in our private lives. So far as these folks are concerned whether or not you cheat on your spouse does in fact speak to your ability to govern. I used to snigger at this notion as kind of misplaced Puritanism but John Edwards and Bill Clinton have gone a long way towards convincing me that I was wrong.