Let's cut through this, shall we?
From late 1995 to early 1997, President Bill Clinton engaged in an extramarital sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
This story broke in January 1998, and --- as a direct response to Clinton's subsequent efforts to hide the relationship --- in December 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
The U.S. Senate eventually acquitted Clinton in February 1999 --- but, by then, the damage had been done. The brute fact of what happened from late 1995 until the Senate's acquittal in early 1999 was a threshold --- and, arguably, determinative --- factor in Al Gore's loss, and George Bush's elevation to the presidency, in 2000.
Fast-forward to 2006, when John Edwards --- who basically started preparing for 2008, the day after he and John Kerry lost in 2004 --- was contemplating exactly when he might announce a second run for the presidency.
Roughly in mid 2006, Edwards engaged in (and, he says, ended) an extramarital sexual relationship of his own, with Rielle Hunter.*
Both John and Elizabeth Edwards say that, shortly after that --- still in 2006 --- John told Elizabeth about the affair.
At that point, John and Elizabeth Edwards had an opportunity. They could decide that, with easily resurrected memories of Bill and Monica and impeachment lying just below the surface and thus ripe to be picked open by Republicans and salted like a freshly-descabbed sore, what John Edwards had just done with Rielle Hunter was a ticking time bomb that --- presidential aspirations and two years of groundwork and planning be damned --- took a 2008 run off the table.
Instead, in late December 2006 --- just eight years after the House impeached Bill Clinton --- John Edwards, acting with Elizabeth's blessing, declared his candidacy. It was a candidacy that John and Elizabeth could sustain only via a cover-up --- only by keeping the unkeepable secret of Rielle Hunter.
And keep their secret John and Elizabeth did, until now. From December 2006 until this past Friday, John and Elizabeth Edwards engaged themselves in a grand public deception against Democrats in particular --- and the American people in general --- about Edwards's affair. They did this --- both John and Elizabeth did it --- in light of, and despite, what Bill Clinton had done to their own party and to the country from late 1995 until early 1999.
So don't feel too sorry for Elizabeth Edwards. She knew what she was doing. So did John.
Not only was it a lie when Elizabeth, in 2007, was using every stump she could find, to tell all who would listen what a great husband John was, while John sat there in aw-shucks silence. It had been only nine years since Bill Clinton had dragged his party, his country, and the presidency itself through the gutter, for doing the very same thing John and Elizabeth were doing for every single day of their campaign: lying about sex.
We Americans have short and forgiving memories. But not that short.
It's easy to forget that, even before Bill Clinton's recently strained relationship with African-Americans, he was having to work out his political and national redemption. Let's remember, though, that Clinton's mishandling of the Monica bombshell effectively neutered his entire second term. It's fair to say that, whatever the stated rationale of the Clinton Foundation, the unstated rationale is to help redeem Clinton for what, as President, he did to --- and didn't do for --- the country and the world, as a direct result of his inability to control his sexual appetite and his refusal to tell the truth about it afterwards.
But don't kid yourself. Bill Clinton remains a long way from redemption. We can pretend to have forgotten what he did. But we haven't forgotten. And we hadn't forgotten, when John Edwards announced in December 2006.
John and Elizabeth Edwards's determination to play roulette with that history and those memories --- and, thus, with the futures both of the Democratic Party and of the country --- betrays an arrogance that is quite shocking, when you think about it.
In the statement he released on Friday, John Edwards said (emphasis mine):
I was and am ashamed of my conduct and choices, and I had hoped that it would never become public. With my family, I took responsibility for my actions in 2006 and today I take full responsibility publicly.
Elizabeth Edwards said, in her own statement (emphasis mine):
This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well. Because of a recent string of hurtful and absurd lies in a tabloid publication, because of a picture falsely suggesting that John was spending time with a child it wrongly alleged he had fathered outside our marriage, our private matter could no longer be wholly private.... John has spoken in a long on-camera interview I hope you watch. Admitting one's mistakes is a hard thing for anyone to do, and I am proud of the courage John showed by his honesty in the face of shame. The toll on our family of news helicopters over our house and reporters in our driveway is yet unknown. But now the truth is out, and the repair work that began in 2006 will continue. I ask that the public, who expressed concern about the harm John's conduct has done to us, think also about the real harm that the present voyeurism does and give me and my family the privacy we need at this time.
Really, Elizabeth? Bill Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for lying about his extramarital affair, and --- only nine years later --- you and your husband deserve to be able to lie about his own affair, while he runs for President of the United States? The real problem is that the National Enquirer found out about it? The real problem is news helicopters overhead and reporters in the driveway of your $26 million house?
You're blaming the media for this? How very Clintonian.
And do remind me, again, how leveraging your husband's campaign --- and thus his potential nomination and election --- on a lie was a demonstration of "the courage John showed by his honesty in the face of shame." Do you really believe that Democrats would have been hailing John's "courage" and "honesty," if he --- and not Barack Obama --- were the presumptive nominee? Are they hailing it now?
It's all very nice to wish that we Americans could be more "Euro" about the private lives of our politicians. I, too, wish that we did not believe that infidelities of the sort that Edwards and Clinton engaged in necessarily should have any bearing on our trust in --- and on the effectiveness of --- our public servants.
But that's not the country we live in.
There is no question but that John and Elizabeth Edwards continue to experience real pain in their marriage, as a result of John's actions in 2006. We all should be sorry for that, and should respect their need and their right to deal with that in their own way.
But private is never entirely private in American politics --- least of all, when it comes to sexual indiscretion.
That John and Elizabeth Edwards pretend, even now --- even after Bill Clinton --- that the real problem is that the United States is not France just adds insult to the injury they were all too willing to inflict on the country they proclaim to love.
* Hunter's name is a bit of a pastiche. Born Lisa Druck, Edwards's former mistress appears to have spent most of the 1980s in New York and then moved to Los Angeles, where she married Alexander Hunter in 1991. At around that time, she was pursuing an acting career, using the stage name "Rielle Hunter," which she legally adopted in 1994. Hunter and her husband divorced in 1999.