It may be hip, detached and cynical, as befits the Third Wave, to deny that marital affairs are relevant in evaluating a politician.
But being burdened by none of those particular attributes, I disagree. I think there are some fine presidents who’ve had affairs. But I disagree it’s not a factor that should be considered, especially where accompanied by other factors.
Bill Clinton and JFK, two presidents rumored to have had large numbers of affairs in addition to those we know about, were consistent in their views of the privacy of human relationships. Edwards, on the other hand?
In late December 2006, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Edwards said, “Do I believe they should have the right to marry? I’m just not there yet…” (This was during the same time period as his affair with Rielle Hunter).
This seems more reminiscent of Ted Haggard or Larry Craig, taking positions on family values and then specifically contradicting those.
It’s important, in my opinion, for a representative to actually represent her or his stated values. Whether it’s an anti-choice politician who puts his female relatives in a different class from poor women with less access to abortion, or an anti-gay-marriage politician who behaves as if “family values” are important for … others. (Of course, I vociferously disagree with Edwards that gay marriage is not in keeping with family values).
Additionally, Edwards himself stated, regarding Bill Clinton, that “the moral dimensions” were relevant to the role as President:
“I think this President has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen.”
He also speculated about the possibility that Clinton was trying to obstruct justice.
Finally, as we in the legal biz know, commingling or misappropriating client assets is one of the most critical ethical rules. Campaign contributors, as well as all Americans, are the candidates’ clients. Hunter got paid over $100,000 allegedly for work on the campaign, without clients being informed of a conflict of interest or the possibility that the funds were being directed elsewhere.
Edwards’ behavior, then, is specifically at odds with his articulated beliefs about “family values,” monetary integrity and rights to sexual privacy. To the extent governing well is proportionate to transparency with constituents about what that means, then I think the circumstances of this affair are indeed relevant.
Finally, the specifically feminist issue in all of this.
Based on the various articles cited on Edwards’ wiki page scrubbing his background, it appears that this affair was not part of a sex addiction (as Bill Clinton was rumored to have suffered from), but a unique or fairly unique circumstance. It occurred while his wife, who was similar in age to him, was suffering (and continues to suffer) from cancer. The woman with whom it took place is seventeen years younger than Elizabeth Edwards. It appears likely from statements of Elizabeth’s that they were not in an open marriage, in which other sexual interactions would be legitimate.
We all know, without my citing chapter line and verse, that May-September relationships are far, far more likely to tilt in a certain gender direction. We can also speculate that there is more likelihood that even in high profile relationships (eg, Tracy Pollan and Michael J. Fox, Dana and Christopher Reeve) that women may not be as likely to stray when spouses are ill. Admittedly my data points here are very anecdotal, so I’ll focus on the first point.
Why are female Septembers statistically more prominent? Well, sure, biology and evolution play a role. It’s inescapable that infertility in women can be more problematic sooner, although male age contributes significantly to miscarriage. But we see female Septembers even where the parties aren’t planning children.
A big component is that women are still expected to dominate the decorative role. Accomplishment and providing can be aphrodisiacs (or pure matters of practicality) in attraction to men. Much less so in women.
But often in couples in which the woman is an equal or larger contributor to economic support, the ages tend to be closer. We can all point to examples in which the woman is by far the larger contributor in which the man may be younger.
We know The Gaze (I wish I could remember who coined this, it wasn’t me) isn’t limited to men. But security is attractive too, and cognitive dissonance is pretty natural.
If women were closer to equally likely to contribute equally or more to support, I believe accomplishment and economic contribution in women would become more of an aphrodisiac. And if women were less in need, relative to men, for security, I believe we’d be more likely to incorporate Gaze factors in to our own analysis. Thereby evening out the May-Sept statistic some.
It’s one more reason, to me, why women’s economic equity is so important.
Update: I was delinquent in being a day behind on my Feministe reading before posting this. Lauren has a great take on this here, with a number of interesting observations, including re Elizabeth Edwards’ role in the “confession.”
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