THE BLOG
04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Edwards' Fall and FDR's Restoration: Separating the Message From the Messenger

Compared to national politics, Colorado seems tame, at least in matters scandalous. Our drama seems to be more mundane. Sure, Democrats are gearing up, attempting to deflect a conceivable upset by Republicans in the gubernatorial and Senate contests. Of course, Democrats dread defeat in either (or both) races in November. But it's not only ideology but political calculations and partisan strategy driving any anxiety and doubts. In the worst-case outcome in those upcoming campaigns, defeat would precipitate depression and discouragement, but not the death of a dream.

Far worse would be the devastation resulting from the defeat of not only the candidate, but also the cause a candidate espoused and epitomized. I'm not writing about the supposed scandal(s) that may or may not be exposed in an impending New York Times article on Governor David Paterson. Rather, I'm referring to Wendy Button's recent Huffington Post entry on John Edwards, which reads like an exercise in betrayal, pain and regret. This isn't a typical postmortem of a disgraced campaign, with the insider doling out faux explanations, excuses and blame. Button's emotions manage to transcend cyberspace's frequent sterility -- where the glut of information, opinion, spin and dissemination overwhelm the average visitor, creating cynicism much more than compassion; serving to inoculate more than evoke. How many gigabytes of gullibility, guilt and grief can the average Internet explorer handle? But her post comes across as sincere, reading more like a private, personal lament than a public explanation.

John Edward's downfall -- not merely from a political summit, but from the ideological pedestal he'd occupied as family man, crusader and Olympian idealist -- has left his former supporters feeling nearly as betrayed as his wife. Of course, their disillusionment and despair, even heartbreak, aren't of the romance novel variety. But then again, there was a romantic cast to the cause, a starry-eyed devotion to both Edwards and his public pursuit of social and economic justice. The lovelorn transcend a wife, family or politician. A few supporters feel that more than a paladin cheated on them. It's as if the cause itself betrayed them, simply because that leader so powerfully incarnated the cause, giving voice, not to mention a powerful public face and personality, to the mission.

While many blame Edwards, Button cuts to the core of our dilemma.

We put politicians where they don't belong -- on a stage and above us. We are starstruck when we should be sober about whether or not they are doing a good job. We demand perfection in their personal lives when all that should matter is if they are obeying the law and maintaining the public trust. We should use this scandal to bring all of our expectations for our leaders back to earth. Stop giving them a stage, confetti, and a theme song, and never forget that the faster they rise, the harder they fall.

Her point's been proven countless times. It's not the politicians who set the stage for disappointment. It's the followers and fans. We dress the stages, prop the pedestals and gasp when the production turns out to be... well, theatrical, failing to follow the script we've written in our minds and expectations. I've fallen prey to the cycle, imagining a candidate to be superhuman, savior and reincarnation, all wrapped in an improbable package. As a college student, in the 1980s, I, like many of my peers, placed my hopes on Gary Hart, similar to college students supporting President Barack Obama in the 2008 election. In the early 1990s, I hoped that Bill and Hillary Clinton were the second coming of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite the drama and partisan politics of ex-President Clinton's impeachment proceedings, I stubbornly held onto the hope, cheering Hillary Clinton's presidential bid when she officially announced in early 2007. While pundits talked about a Clinton Restoration at the time, I was thinking of a Roosevelt Restoration -- but it was really the restoration of my nearly two decades-old hope and conception.

I also jumped on the Edwards bandwagon at one time. In 2003, I believed that he was the presidential candidate. A brilliant and empathetic man perfectly positioned to right our wrongs, promote equality and justice, and not only salvage but also strengthen our nation. All of which sounds like so much jingoism in retrospect, but the ideals behind the phrases were what I believed -- and still believe. Critics and cynics might claim the ideals to be as flawed as the candidate. But this is really a case of separating the message from the messenger. While Edwards' political career might be history, that doesn't make the ideals his campaigns espoused also part of the past.

Which brings me back to Button's post. Aside from her powerful reflections of a campaign and cause gone awry, there is that tidbit of advice about placing politicians on pedestals, which is an extension of our culture of celebrity worship and all the expectations and human frailties accompanying it. Particularly resounding is the admonition, "We demand perfection in their personal lives when all that should matter is if they are obeying the law and maintaining the public trust." Totally true, even if not entirely possible, especially in today's hyperactive, cyber-active, celebrity-driven culture. Such stringent (and private) standards, coupled with today's media saturation, would've disqualified many of our greatest and most effective leaders from public service -- FDR, JFK and LBJ instantly come to mind. All had at least one extramarital affair. But it didn't limit their ideals or their abilities to effect incalculable, lasting and great change.

As for me, I, like most people, am attempting to separate ideals and personality. But I doubt that I'll ever abandon my dream of restoring FDR's legacy. When the Democratic Party nominated Barack Obama as their presidential candidate, I eagerly transferred that dream from the Clintons to his candidacy. After his election, I expressed my exuberance in a letter to the New York Times. An ultra-progressive friend, upset with what he considers President Obama's unacceptable compromises on liberal tenets, still bristles at the avidity of that brief message. He cautioned me to temper my prose and enthusiasm, several times somewhat sardonically asking me to look how the president and the "best and brightest" are relinquishing liberal principles and positions. And while I still believe that the president has the temperament, charisma and abilities to effect the change he promised, not to mention revive the spirit if not the actual administration of FDR, the important message is to keep the ideals and not the personality at the forefront. As many supporters of Edwards and his political ideals have discovered, that isn't an easy task.