And so America has finally stumbled on a political issue of real significance. No, not the trifling matters of economic collapse, global warming, or two wars. No -- the issue of the day is John Edwards' dick.
Since Elizabeth Edwards published a book about the supremely trivial fact that her husband had an affair, the cable shows have been endlessly debating the "issue" once again.
Memo to America: Grow. Up. Have you forgotten the lesson of Lewinsky so soon? While al-Qa'ida plotted a murderous attack on the US, the twice-elected president was busy being impeached over a few bouts of consensual oral sex. It meant nothing. It was nothing. But it skewed your politics for years.
If you think a politician's fidelity to his wife reveals his character, then you believe Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King were deeply immoral people, while Adolf Hitler and Dick Cheney are moral paradigms.
In the long term, a fixation on politicians' penises reinforces existing power structures, because the implicit message of sex stories is simple and reactionary. Politics in the scandal-hungry world isn't about ideas or redistributing wealth and power. It's about who can control their sexual urges best while running a political show which just happens to be rigged in favour of the rich.
Does anyone remember now that John Edwards was the most eloquent campaigner against poverty and corruption in mainstream politics for a generation? You might remember him as the plastic vice-presidential candidate standing at John Kerry's wooden side in 2004. Back then, he offered anodyne Clintonian soundbites and centrist platitudes but losing to Bush yet again did something strange to him. It turned him into an angry whistle-blower, exposing the corruption consuming both of Washington's parties.
He explained: "I have seen the seamy underbelly of what happens in Washington every day. If you're Exxon Mobil and you want to influence what's happening with the government, you go and hire one of these big lobbying firms. This is what you find. About half the lobbyists are Republicans, and about half the lobbyists are Democrats. If the Republicans are in power, the Republican lobbyists take the lead, passing the money around. If the Democrats are in power, the Democratic lobbyists take the lead. They're pushing the same agenda for the same companies. There's no difference." He announced that "the system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken" - and proposed hard ways to change. A smattering have been picked up by President Obama, and many more need to be.
Is all that wiped out by a brief and meaningless ejaculation?
But even if Edwards had a foul agenda - even if he was Rush Limbaugh - adultery would be lousy grounds to drum him out of public life. It. Means. Nothing
It doesn't have to be this way. Continental Europe has a mature model where politicians' affairs are considered irrelevant. The idea a French President would be debarred from office for sleeping with somebody other than his wife is preposterous.
Talking about "a right to know" about affairs is silly. We no more have a right to know about Edward's sex life than we have a right to know what he looks like naked.
This isn't about whether you like John Edwards or not. It's about a choice we all have to make: do we want our political debate to be conducted at the level of the National Enquirer, or does a serious democracy deserve better?
Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent newspaper. To read more of his articles, click here.
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