I really wanted to like John Edwards. I just couldn't help myself.
From the time of his first presidential bid, Edwards' focus on poverty reduction and his sublimely poetic identification of "two Americas" perfectly captured my own communitarian vision of politics and public service.
But I couldn't support him. There was just something about him.
I wish I could say it was because I suspected the arrogance and recklessness that led him to risk the Democratic Party's fortunes - indeed, the fate of the country -- on an implausible scheme to cover-up the paternity of his child. But I wasn't that insightful.
Only recently, upon reflecting on my own political career, did I understand what it was.
During my decade in the arena, I furiously but fruitlessly tried to shed my image as an over-educated urban rich kid who couldn't relate to real people. No matter how much I immersed myself in NASCAR, country music and the New Testament, I still reminded too many people of their high school classmate who sat in the front row with raised hand, self-satisfied smirk, and an answer to every question.
I came to realize that I saw a different high school archetype in John Edwards. He was the pretty boy jock, the letterman who used his smooth charms to cruise through the halls, sail through his classes, and leap into the hearts of the prettiest girls.
I hated that guy in high school. And whenever Edwards reminded me of that guy -- his $400 haircut, the "Breck Girl" video of him preening in a mirror, and especially his rocket-like, seemingly effortless and accomplishment-free advancement to the pinnacle of American politics -- I resolved that I could not support him.
Recent revelations only confirmed that image to me. Edwards' reckless entitlement to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us -- and to leave others with the dirty work of picking up after him -- reminded me all too well of my adolescent fury at the boys that just had it too easy: It wasn't fair that the coaches fought for their special academic treatment. And why, oh why, did the girls always go for the ones that would break their hearts?
Edwards' prosecutors are counting on that very image. While most (although not all) legal experts view the legal case against Edwards as quite weak -- a tenuous application of a very vague campaign finance statutory scheme -- many believe that a jury might convict Edwards anyway, because they just don't like him. Who wouldn't want to help bring the comeuppance of the guy who stole your girl or the lout who broke your best friend's heart?
Well, count me on the side of the defense. John Edwards is not my high school nemesis, nor is he yours. I learned the hard way that our political system paints each of its players into a small, narrative box, from which it is nearly impossible to escape. My first boss, Al Gore, is not a hyperbolic braggart who thinks he invented the Internet. My college-years Senator John Kerry is not an unprincipled flip-flopper whose professed personal opinions adjust hourly in order to remain popular. And John Edwards is not the cartoonish high school jock stereotype that I involuntarily accepted.
Of course, politics will be politics, and those of us who opt for the arena must be prepared to be pigeon-holed by the media and our campaign opponents into an archetypal vision of a high school character.
But the politics of personal destruction must stop at the courtroom door. Our system of justice was designed to protect people who are not well liked. And as much as we may detest what he did, John Edwards should not be criminally prosecuted for his personal failings or for the farcical attempted hush-up.
Just as was the case with fin-de-siecle Bill Clinton, Edwards tried to conceal a personal indiscretion through dubious means. In so doing, he acted in an expressly human way: He wanted to preserve his marriage; and he wanted to protect himself and his family from an international-scale embarrassment. He did not pocket any of the funds that were sent to his mistress, nor did he divert the contributions of unknowing campaign supporters. The cover-up was a victimless series of transactions.
Of course, he acted badly. But no matter how much the prosecution twists and bends our federal campaign laws to try to make out some sort of actionable case, our criminal justice system is intended to protect us from harm, not to punish victimless immorality or human-frailty-inspired stupidity.
And no matter how much we dislike someone -- whether it is due to our high school-inspired jealousies, or our adult sense of right and wrong -- no one deserves to go to jail simply for being a jerk.
Not even a politician. For while it appears lately that many Americans feel that we "own" someone once they choose to run for political office, I strongly disagree. I believe that even for those who pursue the most powerful position in the world; even for someone who has voluntarily subjected himself to the ultimate measure of public scrutiny; and, yes, even with an individual who has pushed his family out front and center in an effort to win voter sympathy -- I still believe that a public official is owed some zone of privacy, and that his private indiscretions do not automatically transform into public crimes.
I've never was a fan of John Edwards. But I will be rooting for him in the months ahead. While my high-school-based instincts about his character may have been somewhat accurate, my law school education instructs all of us who enter a courtroom to put aside our personal feelings. The Edwards case will serve as a critical test of our judicial system. A dismissal or an acquittal might help restore confidence that justice really is blind.
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