John Edwards’ adultery was back in the news last week. Well, okay, “back” is probably not le mot juste, given that the former presidential candidate’s mistress cum campaign videographer wasn’t exactly front-page news even in the days when he was coming a strong second in the Iowa caucuses or being tipped as a possible vice-presidential nominee. Every editor knew the “rumours” (i.e., plausible scenario with mountains of circumstantial evidence), but, unlike, say, Sarah Palin’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s mother’s drug bust, this wasn’t one of those stories you need to drop everything for.
Only when the hard-working lads at the National Enquirer doorstepped Senator Edwards in the basement stairwell of the Beverly Hilton after a post-midnight visit to his newborn love child and forced him to take cover in the men’s room did the Los Angeles Times swing into action. Alas, it was to instruct its writers to make no comment on a story happening right under their own sniffy noses. The editor Tony Pierce emailed as follows:
“There has been a little buzz surrounding John Edwards and his alleged affair. Because the only source has been the National Enquirer we have decided not to cover the rumors or salacious speculations. So I am asking you all not to blog about this topic until further notified.
“If you have any questions or are ever in need of story ideas that would best fit your blog, please don’t hesitate to ask
“Keep rockin.” If only. I think we can take it as read that, if Senator Edwards were delivering his mistress’s octuplets on the editor’s desk at the Los Angeles Times office, Tony would still insist we need a couple of corroborating sources before we can run with this thing.
While no doubt grateful for the Times’ efforts, by now even the adulterer had concluded it was time to fess up to his adultery. So he admitted to an affair with Rielle Hunter, but said that he only began it after his wife’s cancer had gone into remission. Er, so that’s okay then. And he insisted the kid isn’t his. Even Oprah found that a tough one to swallow: in her interview with Elizabeth Edwards last week, she observed that there aren’t a lot of guys who jump on a plane to scoot off to some Hilton in the middle of the night to hold a baby that isn’t theirs for 10 minutes.
Like so many of daytime TV’s happy homemakers, Mrs. Edwards produced something she’d prepared earlier:
“Golly, then you don’t know that many politicians. We do it all the time. Holding babies is what we do.”
Go on, try it yourself when you’re running for office. Wander into an EconoLodge at 2 a.m., and bang on the doors till you hit some obliging mom.
I met Mrs. Edwards when she was campaigning in 2004. And, compared to her oleaginous husband, she seemed very real. Operative word: “seemed.” It’s tempting to do as Oprah did—cast her as the victim. Yet she knew the truth about his affair throughout his second run for the presidency. In Iowa, Edwards pushed Hillary into third place. Had Mrs. Clinton gone on to lose New Hampshire the following week, Democrat primary voters might have concluded Edwards was the only viable alternative to Obama, and perhaps a better bet for the general election. The one-term southern senator was running on biography—son of a mill worker, happily married, stood devotedly by his wife during her cancer—and, although the press were aware the biography was false, they decided their readers didn’t need to know that. It’s not an Edwards scandal, it’s a media scandal.
After Obama had been nominated and Edwards was history, a few press grandees conceded that yes, maybe there was a legitimate story there, but such a sordid tale was never going to tickle the fancy of their refined sensibilities. Oddly enough, this consideration never seems to come into play with, say, Mark Foley, the Florida Republican hounded from public life after some overly tender emails to one of the more fetching Congressional pages, or Larry Craig, the Republican senator caught playing some ill-advised footsie with an undercover cop in the Minneapolis airport men’s room. Admittedly, these sex scandals are less “sordid” than Senator Edwards’: for one thing, there’s no sex in them—just some unrequited cyber-billets- doux in Foley’s case, and a bit of club-footed George Michael stall-divider semaphore in Larry Craig’s. British Tories at least have the consolation of the career-detonating sex scandal; Republicans have to make do with the career-detonating no-sex scandal.
Edwards is history now, and Obama is President. And the other day he and Joe Biden visited a hamburger restaurant. In the Clinton years, the 8 a.m. news bulletin on National Public Radio would invariably begin: “The President travels today to [insert state here] to unveil his proposals on [insert issue here].” If you’ve read A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, you’ll recall that Hank Morgan, the eponymous time-travelling New Englander, was much taken by the Court Circular published each week in Camelot:
On Monday, the king rode in the park.
” Tuesday, ” ” ” ” Wednesday ” ” ”
” Thursday ” ” ”
” Friday, ” ” ”
” Saturday ” ” ”
” Sunday, ” ” ”
The NPR morning lead is the merest variant: on Monday, the king rode in the park to declaim his proposals on reduced emission standards. And the massed ranks of the press corps dutifully rode behind to scribble them down while trying to avoid the horseshit. But, when King Barack rode to the burger restaurant, there were no such policy implications: he didn’t bring along the treasury secretary to nationalize America’s cheeseburgers or Barney Frank to cancel the busboys’ bonuses. He just went to have a burger and some “tater tots.” And not one self-respecting member of the press corps thought, “Uh, do we really want to schlep across the Potomac to Virginia just to file a report on Obama eating a cheeseburger?”
So off they all galloped. In 1939, President and Mrs. Roosevelt hosted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hyde Park in upstate New York. Their Majesties had come down from Ottawa, accompanied by Mackenzie King, because, technically, they were visiting the U.S. in their capacity as King and Queen of Canada. Which is an arcane Commonwealth constitutional point of no interest to Americans, naturally. Instead, the point of local interest was that FDR served Their Majesties hot dogs, and much was made of the fact that this was the first time the Royal Family had ever eaten this quintessentially American delicacy. From the radio reports, it sounds like the first time for the Roosevelts, too: when Eleanor says, “Your Majesty, here is your hot dog,” she puts the emphasis on the “dog” rather than the “hot,” as if to distinguish it from a hot goat or hot mongoose. Appearing on the Rush Limbaugh Show last week, I made the observation that it had taken 70 years for American public life to turn up a fast-food photo op of similar absurdity, only now the media were marvelling not that a foreign king was passing among them and eating as ordinary mortals do but that their own citizen-president was. That’s not, to my mind, progress.
The blogger Mickey Kaus likes to distinguish between the news and the “under-news.” The “news” is what you get from your bland monodaily or your incontinence-pad-sponsored network news show; the “under-news” is what’s bubbling out there on the Internet. I can see why Obama, Edwards and others value the king-rode-in-the-park model. But it’s not clear what’s in it for America’s failing newspapers. If you’re conservative, you don’t read them because they’re biased. If you’re an informed leftie, you don’t read them because they don’t have the gleeful partisan brio of the Daily Kos or the Huffington Post. And, if you’re apolitical, you don’t read them because they’re just incredibly boring.
Throughout the ‘d’90s, from O.J. to Monica, the ethics bores of America’s journalism schools bemoaned at the drop of a New York Times commission the media’s “descent into tabloidization.” A decade on, American newspapers are dying. Really dying, I mean; not just having a spot of difficulty negotiating the transition from one distribution system to another, which is the problem faced by British, Australian, Canadian and other newspaper markets. But better to be the dead parrot’s cage liner, than the actual parrot. Which would you say was more responsible for the death of American newspapering? The “descent into tabloidization”? Or the dreary monarchical deference of American liberalism’s insipid J-school courtiers? The king rode in the park. He was riding his videographer in the shrubbery, but you don’t need to know that.
“Keep rockin,” Tony Pierce advises his writers. Why not start rockin’? Tony sounds such a cool guy, he knows all the hepcat lingo. What a shame his newspaper isn’t as groovily written as his memos. Which may be why the Los Angeles Times’ parent company has had to file for bankruptcy protection. If this crate’s a-rockin’, it’s because Tony and his chums drove it over a cliff and it’s bouncin’ on the way down.