Thursday, February 4, 2010

More On Edwards's Creepiness

An interesting post from Andrew Sullivan addresses the double standard in the media treatment of Sarah Palin and John Edwards. Why was Alaska infested with media “fact-checkers” trying to poke holes in every mildly flattering story ever told by or about Palin when their editors were militantly indifferent to rumors about Edwards’ infidelity? It’s to Andrew’s credit that he addresses questions about that double standard to himself. No one has tried to expose Palin’s (alleged) mendacity with anything approaching his dedication. Yet, by his own admission, he was too squeamish to entertain rumors about Edwards’s sex life.

Andrew doesn’t deny that there was a double standard. With admirable consistency, he takes himself to task for not invading Edwards’s privacy with the same zeal with which he invaded Palin’s.

“My mistake as a journalist was in making an assumption of a baseline of decency in public officials that it is not my job to make. My job is to assume nothing and to trust nothing until verified. One doesn't have to pry; but when rumors emerge, we should not be deferent with public officials. We should ask questions. . . . [Edwards], like Palin, could have been president of the US at some point. And we barely knew him. I want to apologize to my readers for dropping this ball. And congratulate the National Enquirer for following the facts where they eventually led.”
That makes a lot of sense, but there’s something to be said to presuming decency on the part of political candidates, even when the presuming is done by hardhearted journalists acting as agents of the public. I’m inclined to believe that Andrew should have cured the double standard by treating Palin with the same deference he extended to Edwards.

Here’s why: We find it generally reasonable in our day-to-day interactions with strangers to presume “a baseline of decency.”  Conversing with people we don’t know, for example, we generally presume that they’re telling us the truth. If we didn’t, liars couldn’t deceive us by telling us things they think are false. But we presume honesty anyway because we’ve made the reasonable calculation that we gain more in the long run from the general practice of truth-telling than we’re going to lose by occasionally having our gullibility exploited. Were we to make a practice of cross-examining everyone we meet before believing what they say, they’d be less inclined to tell us things we’d be better off knowing. Presuming honesty (at the price of exposing ourselves to the depredations of liars) is a contribution we make to the collective stock of social capital that benefits us all.

That doesn’t mean that we have to be chumps. We suspend the presumption of honesty in situations where we know we’re particularly vulnerable to fraudulent behavior—we don’t send our bank account number to those people sending us emails from Nigeria announcing that we’ve won the state lottery. But those are special cases. Expecting other people to be honest is still the best default setting in the sense that it's the one we reasonaly want other people to adopt.

Understandably, Andrew seems to regard candidates seeking our vote as another special case. But, whether the presuming is done by ordinary citizens or journalists acting in their behalf, the general presumption that people offering themselves for public office don’t lead scandalous private lives has pretty obvious social benefits. We probably don’t gain much from limiting the pool of candidates to people who are so power hungry that they’re willing to endure the indignity of the press airing their dirty laundry to get it. And the information about their private lives that we forego not only isn’t all that informative, but it crowds more informative material out of the public’s consciousness. Were we really that much better off knowing about Bill Clinton's sexual adventures in the oval office than not knowing what JFK was up to when Jackie was on the road?  I doubt it.

I’ll grant you that Edwards might have made his infidelity fair game by trafficking politically on his wife’s cancer diagnosis. But we didn’t really need to know about Rielle Hunter, to know that John Edwards wasn’t very honest about presenting himself to the public. We could have inferred that just by comparing what he said on the 2008 presidential campaign trail to his voting record. That comparison moved Russ Feingold to observe that Edwards “voted for the Patriot Act, campaigns against it. Voted for No Child Left Behind, campaigns against it. Voted for the China trade deal, campaigns against it. Voted for the Iraq war … He uses my voting record exactly as his platform, even though he had the opposite voting record.”  What more did we need to know?

If you ask me, Andrew’s deference to Edwards’s privacy is a socially valuable reflex.

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