09/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Phelps versus Rielle Hunter: Who's Worth More?

Here's my question: How is it that a guy who's devoted his young life to the pursuit of excellence stands to win a $1 million bonus if he matches an existing record, while a woman who devoted a nanosecond of her life to bedding a would-be presidential candidate and badmouthing his wife gets a $3.2 million home in Santa Barbara and a five-figure allowance?

Just asking.

One of the dozens of reporters and photographers who flit around Michael Phelps like so many bees around a birthday cake asked him what he does with his time, and the answer was simple. He swims, he eats, and he sleeps. When he gets the chance he thanks his mom, and that, for now, is pretty much it. All he wants to do is swim faster than anyone ever has, which hurts no one except for the guys who can't beat him. It's an honorable obsession, even if it does require him to wax or shave -- really, I don't want to know -- every strand of body hair south of the nape of his neck. He got a million-dollar bonus from Speedo, and he's broken every other record that had the temerity to stand in his way. This may inspire youngsters around the country to spend all their spare time in a swimming pool, where cell phones and video games do not work. At the moment, it seems like a high calling.

And yet the bigger reward went to Rielle Hunter, nee Linda Druck. If we can believe writer Jay McInerney, she has a splendid obsession of her own, which may involve illicit substances of both the liquid and powdered variety, and an utter willingness to ignore the bonds of matrimony if they get in the way of her good time. I am not one of those people who blames the other woman in this situation, since it takes two to tango, but John Edwards was rich before he was unfaithful and dishonest, so that's another story altogether.

Rielle Hunter got rich for briefly engaging in an indoor sport at which she may or may not be any good. She slept with another woman's husband -- and then, allegedly, said enough awful things about Elizabeth Edwards to earn her the Rush Limbaugh award for inconceivable verbal evil. By anyone's count, she broke at least a couple of the Ten Commandments, for which she gets a really nice house and a fair chunk of spending money.
We live at a time when more med students are becoming dermatologists, and more dermatologists are opening cosmetics-only practices, so it shouldn't come as a shock to learn that our national value system is based on dubious criteria. In fact, we could pivot and work this in the opposite direction, and talk about how little public school teachers make compared to much lesser sports stars than Michael Phelps, but that's a big, institutionalized problem. We could total up Phelps' potential endorsement earnings and feel sorry for ourselves. But I'm just looking at the week's headlines, the moment's celebrities, and thinking that Michael Phelps' skills in his specialty outstrip Rielle Hunter's in hers.
I know, I know; the house and the allowance were hush money, so a particular kind of inflation was involved. But if Phelps is going to inspire little boys to work on their butterfly, what in heaven's name is Hunter's pay-off going to encourage little girls to do?