Commentary: Bookends for an Encyclopedia of Political Bottom Feeders

I’m not presuming John Edwards’ guilt. I’m just hoping for it.

As everybody knows by now, the former senator, 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee and 2008 presidential hopeful has been indicted by a federal grand jury on six counts -- four having to do with illegal campaign contributions, one of conspiracy and one of making false statements.

The short version: The feds say Edwards, with the collaboration of some of his cronies, enablers, supporters and suckups, spent upwards of $925,000 to keep his off-the-books squeeze Rielle Hunter and her (and Edwards’) child living in obscure -- and, more important, quiet -- luxury while he pursued his presidential ambitions.

Get the picture? While he was stumping the country posturing himself as a devoted family man, with his valiantly ailing wife Elizabeth fighting some of his battles (including a memorable TV confrontation with the professionally repellent Ann Coulter), Edwards was allegedly spending almost a million bucks keeping his tawdry little infidelity-paternity problem from tarnishing his carefully and cynically crafted image.

John Edwards and Newt Gingrich would make perfect bookends for an Encyclopedia of Political Bottom Feeders. Beyond the marquee slime factor of betraying wives who were battling cancer, these two are exhibits A and B, in no particular order, of everything that makes the term “politician” one of derision and contempt.

It’s eminently fitting that one of the indictments charges Edwards with false campaign disclosure statements. Surely he wouldn’t have lied about that, would he? This is, after all, the same empty suit who first lied about the affair, then ’fessed up in the summer of ’08, by which time it had become all but impossible to deny and his bid for the party’s presidential spot was pretty much down the bowl anyway. (Voters often show remarkably good judgment of character.) Then he lied about being the father of his girlfriend’s baby; an aide, obviously trying to limbo under the moral and ethical bar his employer had set, took the rap (not that anybody bought it) before Edwards belatedly owned up to that as well.

We Americans insist we’re tired of partisan rancor. Well, here’s our ticket: John Edwards and Newt Gingrich in a bipartisan Family Values campaign. Maybe Edwards can learn from Newt’s example and claim his sleazy little affair happened because he just loved his country too much.

Seriously (at least for a moment), there’s really no way to quantify the corrosion high-profile lowlifes like Edwards inflict on this republic, and on the principle of civic integrity. (Yes, even at my age and in my advanced stage of accumulated cynicism, I still think there is such a thing.)

A couple of years ago I had dinner with a lifelong friend who is now an elected official. I was struck by his beginning a sentence with: “Now that I’m a politician ” He said it with a grin, but with no irony or embarrassment. I admired the candor, and told him how impatient -- contemptuous, really -- I have become every time another candidate or officeholder tells me, “I’m not a politician.” My friend’s response: “Then ask him why the hell his name’s on a ballot.”

The point was that instead of running from the word, seekers and holders of political office should try to reconstruct the image of public service as an honorable and necessary calling. And yes, we in this industry have our own sins to answer for in that regard as well.

But rehabilitating the image of statecraft is no easy task when the John Edwardses of the political universe make “politics” synonymous with intellectual dishonesty (along with more pedestrian and indictable forms of dishonesty), lowest-common-denominator demagoguery and unfathomable moral hypocrisy.