The Edwards / Hunter Affair Reconsidered

When CNN anchor Anderson Cooper recently suggested to viewers that the deepening John Edwards’ mistress scandal was “so very, very sad,” my immediate reaction was:  Sad for whom?   Certainly sad for the former North Carolina Senator whose once-promising national political career is, for all intents and purposes, over.  And, of course, sad for Mrs. Edwards, who suffers the double indignity and humiliation of watching her high-profile husband not only cheat with another woman but actually father a “love child” with him.  (To say nothing of the Edwards’ children, who are currently resuming their education or starting new careers).

And sad for America, perhaps, because the oft-told story of the Edwards’ family’s recovery from the tragic death of their eldest son – a story that had made the couple seem so vulnerable and human compared to so many distant and seemingly uncaring politicians – has been superseded by the more familiar story of blind ambition, lust, adultery, and betrayal.  Its a story that can only deepen America’s cynicism about the integrity of its elected officials.

But what of the mistress, Rielle Hunter?  She’s still living in seclusion, shielded from the glare of publicity, and not yet a household name.  If one person has emerged from this scandal thus far unscathed, it seems to have been her.  In fact, from a certain, admittedly jaded, viewpoint, the 45-year old self-described “video producer” and “spiritualist” appears to have done quite well for herself.  She’s not only gotten a baby she’s long wanted,  but according to press reports, for months she’s been enjoying a brand new BMW, a beautiful rent-free condominium, and spending money to burn. And with her baby’s paternity all but confirmed, she will surely end up with a lucrative book deal, and enough celebrity, or notoriety, to revive her flagging career (or start a new one).  Indeed, she may even end up with Edwards himself – at least enough of him (and his multi-million dollar fortune) to guarantee that she is supported financially and remains in the limelight, however salaciously, for years to come.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Call me old-fashioned but where is the media or public outrage at the behavior of this woman?   We all know that John Edwards –  like so many other extraordinarily capable and charismatic male politicians who have fallen from grace before him – was guilty of extremely poor judgment and a selfish vanity bordering on narcissism.  Edwards himself admitted as much in a televised interview before the child’s paternity was known.  But what in our contemporary culture blinds us from training our moral judgment on a woman who maneuvered her way into the Edwards presidential campaign and aggressively pursued and freely bedded the candidate – and possible future president –  knowing full well that he had a reasonably happy family, including a loyal and loving wife at home slowly dying from cancer?

Admittedly, the Hunter case is something of an exception  Typically, when married male politicians cavort with younger and more socially vulnerable women, or members of their own staff, the women are more victim than accomplice.  The problem is, Hunter doesn’t fit this standard profile.  She’s a woman of education and training, and though she worked for the campaign, she wasn’t a typical, low-level subordinate, or even a staffer per se.   She operated, it appears, more as an independent consultant, one who constantly indulged Edwards and who was indulged in return.  In other words, she clearly wasn’t roped or coerced into an affair, but either went into it willingly, and rather innocently, in the passon of he moment, or perhaps far more sinisterly, for some deliberate personal gain.

In the old days, we had names for such a woman – “gold-digger,” “vixen,” and “home-wrecker” come to mind – and men and women largely agreed on their meaning and usage.  I’m not saying we need to revert to these loaded (and admittedly nasty) terms to explain or judge Hunter’s behavior.  But we do need to accept, perhaps, that thanks to our contemporary, feminist-influenced political culture, we seem to be in danger of adopting a blatant double standard when we give Rielle Hunter a complete free pass, but continue to treat John Edwards – like Eliot Spitzer or Bill Clinton before him – as simply a poster boy for male sexism.

Here’s my question to freedom-loving women everywhere:  do we really want to say – or imply, through our silence – that a woman can do just about anything to get ahead – including, perhaps, try to steal another woman’s rich husband – because it’s all part of the messy struggle for female equality, and even liberation?   Somewhere amid all this hip talk about “Grrl Power,”  aren’t we losing touch with the idea that women are still responsible for their own sexual behavior?  Even more so when it affects the interests and needs of another woman?

It may be that when Rielle Hunter finally emerges from seclusion – a seclusion largely bought and paid for by Edwards and his benefactors – the public will judge her role in this scandal harshly.  I rather doubt it.  With each new sex scandal involving a prominent politician or media celebrity – David Letterman being the most recent – liberals especially seem increasingly inured to questions of personal responsibility.  Unfortuantely, it is just this kind of ethical lapse – or void – that allows conservatives to rush in with their own moralistic propaganda.   For the Rush Limbaughs of the world, Edwards and Hunter, like Clinton and Lewinksy, may soon become the latest “decadent” liberal couplet intent on destroying family values and undermining our  culture.  And liberals, in turn, will be quick to proclaim some prominent conservative – Rep. Tod Ensign being the latest – guilty of the very same sin.   But in this game of “Who’s The Bigger Hypocrite?” there really aren’t any winners.

In the end, when the full story comes out, the Edwards-Hunter affair may turn out to be less tawdry than it currently seems.  Any man of Edwards’ age and stature who gets a woman pregnant – and doesn’t use his considerable power and influence to try to stop her from giving birth – is either supremely honorable, and gentlemanly, or is actually far more attached to the child’s mother, and the idea of their coupling, than he has (thus far) let on.  Would it be a sin if Edwards had actually thought about his personal future beyond his now-dying wife, even at the cost of his political future?  And what of their daughter?  Is she to grow up forever in the shadow of political ignominy, and have no chance for a decent and independent life free of the tarnish of this scandal?  Shouldn’t we forswear moral judgment altogether and simply let the matter drop?

Sadly, American public morality being what it is, some measure of public judgment, I suspect, is inevitable.  That being the case, I think women, especially feminist women – who so delight in exposing every male sexual transgression – might consider whether this is one time they might hold one of their own to account?  Not just for Mrs. Edwards’ – an outspoken and courageous woman in her own right – but for all of us.

STEWART LAWRENCE is free-lance writer based in Washington, DC.  His piece on President-elect Obama’s relations with Latinos appeared in Counterpunch last December.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at