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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

Cancer and Character in American Politics

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Watching Elizabeth and John Edwards talk about their battle against cancer, yesterday, filled me with an overwhelming sense of pride and admiration for this country.  More than at any time in recent memory, I felt I was seeing something that Teddy Roosevelt once spoke about so eloquently, but has since become a rare, even fleeting presence in American politics: high individual character as the "foundation stone" of national life.

But as I watched the responses to their press conference roll in, my pride was  eclipsed by concern--a lingering sense of dread about another cancer: the cynicism spread through the American body politic by the right-wing smear machine.

American Character Re-emerges
With a grace that most of us can only dream of achieving, the couple talked of their recent discovery that Elizabeth's breast cancer had migrated to her bones.  It was the kind of news that chills and changes the direction of lives.  And yet, for the Edwards, it redoubled their resolve to stay on course.  Summoning the voice of a mature statesman in an age where none are to be found, John Edwards summed up their decision--and the moment--as follows:

if you're not able, in a focused, thoughtful way, to deal with this kind of pressure, you're not ready to be president

It was John who uttered this phrase, but the voice was John and Elizabeth combined.  In this time where politicians invent ailments to give themselves cover, the Edwards reminded us of the true meaning of public service: dedication and idealism even in the face of unimaginable obstacles.

I was not alone in seeing this--in feeling this way in reaction to the press conference.
Amidst an avalanche of political crisis, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, himself a cancer survivor, used his pulpit to express the admiration many Americans were feeling:

As you probably know, Senator John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, have announced that she has a recurrence of cancer, and that they will still continue a full and vigorous campaign. First, our thoughts and prayers are with Elizabeth Edwards.

Also, as somebody who has been through this, Elizabeth Edwards is setting a powerful example for a lot of people, and a good and positive one. She has been on top of diagnosis and follow-up. When you have cancer it's very important to keep checking. She's being aggressive. She's living an active life. And a positive attitude, prayers, and people you love are always a very good addition to any kind of medicine you have. So for Elizabeth Edwards, good going; our prayers are with you.

An honest and accurate sentiment from a press secretary who spends most of his time running cover for a dishonest administration.  It was a relief to hear that praise from the White House within minutes of the Edwards press conference. How horrible it would have been, I thought, if the President of the United States had dug himself so deep into a political foxhole that he was unable to comment on the well-being of another prominent American.

The Cancer of Cynicism
Unfortunately, we live in political times where a great many Americans react to moments like yesterday's announcement with distrust, rather than admiration.

Pulling together a host of audience reactions sent to them after the Edwards' announcement, CNN ran the headline "Your Emails: Torn between Edwards' Career and Family."  The actual emails were, on the whole, brazenly critical of John Edwards for what many believed to be his having placed his wife's condition above his political ambitions:

I was so disappointed to hear that John Edwards is putting his presidential aspirations above the health of his wife. I am a two-time breast cancer survivor and the rigors of a campaign and the treatment she will undergo are not compatible. I would have respected him much more if he would have placed his career options aside to take care of his wife. She may have told him it's OK to continue, but he is the head of that family and his responsibility is to his wife and to protecting his children's mother. There will always be another election, but his family needs him right now.

It is without question reasonable for this CNN viewer to have sent in an opinion, particularly since it drew on the experience of having suffered from cancer.  But the cynicism towards the Edwards is astounding.  In their words and in their body language, John and Elizabeth Edwards are a model husband and wife if anything--intellectual, political and emotional partners whose admiration for each other is apparent every moment they are together. They are pillars of strength, the very model of a family based on respect and equality.   And yet, somehow, this viewer watched them together and saw an opportunistic, irresponsible politician taking advantage of the mother of his children in a moment of weakness.

Another letter from a CNN viewer expressed a similar sentiment:

I lost my mother-in-law to breast cancer. It too came and went and came again. I think it is ridiculous that Edwards plans to run at this time. I hope that his wife recovers fully and is able to be at his side in 2012 or 2016 for a run, but it is clear that he needs to be at her side NOW. He needs to drop his selfish career pursuits and really look at what is important in his life. There are other people who can be president of the United States in 2008, but only one husband and father in Edwards' family. Let's be honest: If this doesn't go well for her, he will not be in a position to start a new job running our country and I say that as a Democrat who would consider supporting him in a bid for the presidency down the road.

Many of the emails sent to CNN expressed deep admiration for John and Elizabeth Edwards--both for their courage in the struggle against cancer and for their dedication to leadership and public service.  But this notion that running for President is an act of selfishness--this stuck in my mind.

Since when is being the President of the United States a selfish act?  Running for President itself is an exhausting process wherein the candidate and his family expose themselves to a ceaseless onslaught of media scrutiny.  And if elected, the line between the personal and the political vanishes, turning the lives of the President and his family into a four- or  eight-year drama without hope of privacy or intermission.

Selfish?  "Masochistic" seems a better choice of word.

The Malignant Smear
This idea that Edwards is somehow "selfish" did not appear out of thin air, but is part of a well-organized and ongoing attempt by the authoritarian right to smear him and his family.

Just a few weeks ago (Mar 6, 2007), Edwards was interviewed by Beliefnet.org during which he used the word "selfish" six times.  Here is one example from that interview:

Q: What parts of American life do you think would most outrage Jesus?

JE: Our selfishness. Our resort to war when it's not necessary. I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs. I think he would be appalled, actually.

In response to this statement, Rush Limbaugh immediately posted a column accusing Edwards himself not only of being a selfish hypocrite, but of being a covert homosexual whose egotism was a risk to national security:

Every day Americans offer countless acts of kindness to strangers, because that is our nature. Not to mention the gifts granted to others from all of the taxes we pay.

Yet you, former Senator John Edwards -- patron saint of stiff hair, hair spray, and empty heads -- you use Jesus to mischaracterize Americans as selfish warmongers, with no right to defend our country when attacked? Senator, would you dare ever attack our enemies? Would you ever say one negative word about our enemies? Just one time, would you ever try to characterize our enemies as they are? What is it about you, senator, that when you look at this country you see nothing but failure and selfishness? Could it be because you're looking at this country in the mirror, sir, and you see yourself?

Of course, all of America remembers John Edwards declaring that if elected he would destroy Al Qaeda, but maybe that easily retrieved transcript is too hard for Limbaugh to find:

We will always use our military might to keep the American people safe.

And we, John and I, we will have one clear unmistakable message for Al
Qaida and these terrorists: You cannot run. You cannot hide. We will
destroy you.

For Limbaugh and those parrot him, the reality of what Edwards has actually said about terrorism (or anything else) is less important than the long-term authoritarian goal of infecting American idealism with the cancer of political cynicism.

At every turn, on every issue, and using every media tool at their disposal, Limbaugh and his ilk smear Democrats as "selfish" with the hope not only of ruining their political chances, but of breaking down the most precious of all American resources: our hope about the future and our belief in each other.


John Edwards, of course, is as tough and resilient as any Democratic candidate out there, and has taken on as best he can the most atrocious smears from the right.

But no matter how much idealism Edwards puts into his campaign, the cancer of cynicism continues to spread to through the American electorate.

Jill Porter, writing today for the Philadelphia Daily News:

I don't necessarily think that John Edwards is heartless, selfish or cold - or that he's exploiting his wife's illness for the sympathy vote, as some cynics believe.  But I do think that the decision is shortsighted and unrealistic, and that his priorities are out of whack.

Even in what can be construed as a balanced discussion of the issue, Porter invokes the Limbaugh smear as pretext for arguing that the Edwards' decision to continue their campaign is immoral.

Long-Term Treatment for Chronic Cynicism

Does America suffer from chronic cynicism brought on by decades of right-wing toxic smear injected into the body politic?
Absolutely.  Is it incurable?  No.

Speaking in 1906 on this very danger, President Theodor Roosevelt  observed the following:

To assail the great and admitted evils of our political and industrial life with such crude and sweeping generalizations as to include decent men in the general condemnation means the searing of the public conscience. There results a general attitude either of cynical belief in and indifference to public corruption or else of a distrustful inability to discriminate between the good and the bad. Either attitude is fraught with untold damage to the country as a whole.

In Roosevelt vision, the need to prosecute evil and corruption must be met with great care to insure the oversight is done honestly.  The end result, in other words, of a media that attacks all "decent men" with a "general condemnation" is not so much the end of corruption,  but the general cynicism and indifference of of the public.

The problem with constant and indiscriminate muck raking is that it loses sight of the larger goal of politics and national life, subsuming the public mind in a gray zone that is neither good nor bad, worthy or unworthy. 

The long-term damage of the constant, manufactured brutality of the right-wing smear machine against Democratic candidates registers less with the candidates, than with ourselves.

Roosevelt's solution is as simple as it is clear.  Every so often, we must remind ourselves to look up from our muck raking and appreciate the great ideas of truth and honesty that are the ethical purpose of American character.

As Roosevelt's put it so aptly at the end of his "Muck Rake" speech:

We appreciate that the things oft he body are important, but we appreciate also that the things of the soul are immeasurably more important.  The foundation stone of national life is, and ever must be, the high individual character of the average citizen.

If ever a past president reached through time to speak to us, it was in Teddy Roosevelt in that conclusion.   

As they stood before a throng of scoop hungry reporters and a nation weakened by a decade of indiscriminate right-wing smear, the Edwards helped us all to look up for a moment from our muck raking--reminding us all that while the body is important, it is the things of the soul are the foundation stone of our national life.

Whatever the outcome of the Presidential race, we should all look up and appreciate the opportunity the Edwards gave us so selflessly, yesterday.

(cross posted from Frameshop)