To me the moral of the Edwards trial is the extent to which we collectively have lost track of what is important and, in fact, have lost track of the truth of what it means to be a man.
Far more significant than the rise of the “institutional extremes” is the absence of eloquent leadership at the center. The Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who not long ago seemed to incarnate the best of the rational middle, celebrated the electoral season by being detained for engaging in orgies with prostitutes. (He claims not to have been aware that that’s what the women were.) The former I.M.F. chief’s continuing fall brings to mind Michel Houellebecq’s gloomy, obsessive novel of more than a decade ago, “The Elementary Particles,” with its insistence that the neo-liberal model of material acquisitiveness would lead in the end only to nihilistic sexual compulsion. At the time, Houellebecq seemed pettish; he now seems poetically prescient.
I happened upon this passage this morning and it stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been following the John Edwards trial in my peripheral vision, trying desperately not to look, but getting sucked in by discussion on NPR and by reports from the courtroom that Edwards’s Harvard Law-educated daughter has become so overcome with emotion that, at one point, she ran from the proceedings in an attempt to compose herself.
I have advocated that the national addition to men behaving badly propels a false stereotype of 21st century manhood. Most recently I took CNN to task for asking the question, “Are Men Stupid?”
But as Romney and Obama trade barbs over who would have been more courageous when ordering the hit on Osama Bin Ladin, Gopnik’s zinger about French politics had me thinking a bit more deeply about the Edwards saga and my odd personal connection to the man who now faces 30 years if found guilty.
In April of 2008, I was on a plane from Boston to San Francisco. It was one of sixty such trips I took during the life of a company that went from start-up through many near death experiences to ultimate sale a decade later. I had grown tired of my life as a venture capitalist and had begun working on a writing project that I had come to think of as the answer to all those shitty addiction memoirs. In time, I would realize that mine was no better than the rest, but on the flight I still had the belief as a first time writer, that I had something important and unique to say with no need of editing or practice.
Seated next to me was a slightly disheveled woman who seemed to have a hard time keeping still. She said she had just been at Harvard doing some kind of speaking engagement.
I was mildly annoyed at her bouncing foot and constant digging around her bag until I noticed the flight attendant paying extra special attention to her. I had no idea who she was, but I figured she most be someone worth talking to so I struck up a conversation.
She asked me about the huge stack of paper in front of me and I told her about my memoir. She said she was actually on a book tour herself. She wrote down her agent’s email and phone number. And gave me her own. She talked about her struggles with cancer and said how important being part of an online support community of survivors had been to her, where no one knew her other than as another woman who was fighting to beat the disease.
It was a six-hour flight and it took me until well past half way to finally figure out I was sitting next to Elizabeth Edwards.
Elizabeth and I corresponded a handful of times by email after our shared flight. She read part of my manuscript and told me that the first pages have to be your very best (implying, to my chagrin, that my opening pages really weren’t all that great). She emailed me about the details of her Halloween with her kids the following fall and made sure that her agent got back to me (he also was not impressive by my literary talent).
And then her cancer came back.
The next time I saw her, I was sitting with my wife, Elena, at the MGH Cancer Dinner, where Elena has been an active volunteer. Elizabeth Edwards was the keynote speaker. She was horrible. She went on too long, was completely disorganized in her remarks, and so arrogant as to be off-putting, if that is possible for a woman dying of cancer addressing a crowd of cancer survivors, clinicians and supporters.
I never even tried to say hello. The crowd was huge and I am not one to elbow others out of the way to get close to celebrities. Besides, I found myself saddened by the way Elizabeth had tried to make her own illness into a crusade rather than the human and personal battle it obviously was.
The next year the MGH Cancer dinner speaker was Matt Damon with whom I have had no previous relationship other than a huge man-crush. He spoke eloquently about his dad’s cancer. I was saddened by the final news of Elizabeth Edward’s death just because she was someone with whom I had once spent 6 hours on a plane and who in her own way had shown me the kindness of the offer of help. But I really tried to keep my mind off the John Edwards circus. I averted my eyes to story after story about money, paternity, and a family at war with itself .
In the end I got sucked in like everyone else. As I listened to Tom Ashbrook talk with the former state deputy Attorney General in North Carolina about whether or not the state would be able to prove that Edwards had criminal intent—whether he knowingly used campaign funds to cover up his mistress and their baby—I found myself thinking back on Elizabeth Edwards and also on how this incredible story of deception, philandering, and power might make any sense in light of The Good Men Project’s attempt to spark a discussion about what it means to be a good man.
It sounds very mean to say of a now-deceased woman who was beloved by many, but my brush with Elizabeth Edwards didn’t leave me with a positive impression. I really didn’t like her. There was a false pitch to her intensity, despite her kindness. Maybe it was that she told me the truth about my writing (not as good as I thought) that stuck in my craw, but I would like to believe that I am not that egotistical. It was almost like I could sense in her demeanor there was a lot more to the story than what she was telling me.
What John Edwards did was obviously a thousand times more damaging than giving a poor keynote speech. And in the end this tale isn’t so much about Elizabeth, though that is my personal connection, but about John. The trial has reduced manhood to a pulp novel with breath-taking twists and turns of denial and power run amuck. And this from the politician who stood on the idea of speaking the truth to power about the down-trodden in our nation.
If Dominique Strauss-Kahn has become the poster boy for what was the last great hope for France, John Edwards in some ways has become the epitome of American politics. It’s so much worse than a junk shot from the Capital gymnasium, that even those bent on salacious features don’t quite seem to know how to report on the tragedy. Or maybe we collectively are waking up to how darn sad it is to have this never-ending story of philandering in the headlines day after day after day.
No one is ever going to convince me that the men of power and fame who misbehave sexually are in any way representative of the other 99.9% of men who work their asses off to be good husbands, dads, workers and men. But the Edwards story has me thinking that perhaps my attitude that we should just ignore the men who cheat as an aberration of the rich and famous isn’t really the answer either.
The moral of the Edwards trial is the extent to which we collectively have lost track of what is important and, in fact, have lost track of the truth of what it means to be a man. When it comes to manhood, our culture seems to value power and wealth above all else. We turn a blind eye to how that wealth and power is achieved. If you have it, you win. It’s okay if you lie, steal and cheat to get there.
At The Good Men Project we emphasize that fame, wealth and power are perhaps over-rated when it comes to manhood. How about the NFL Hall of Famer who learned everything he knows from developing “beginner’s mind” in karate? Or combat photojournalist who risks his life to shoot the truth of war so the rest of us can bare witness to impact of our policies? Or the NBA owner who quietly dedicates all his free time to a school for blind children?
I have often been asked to define male goodness. I have always responded that I don’t know. I firmly believe that goodness is a relative term, defined by each man in his own life. But I do know that an important element involves truth telling. It’s pretty hard to figure out how to be a good man when you are telling yourself lies on a daily basis.
My sympathy for John Edwards, or the long list of other men in the public eye who have fallen from grace, is limited. But we do have this unrealistic expectation that our politicians and athletes and movie stars be perfect. They amass power and wealth by whatever means possible and then set about spinning a tale about how they got there that is a fairy tale in order to stay on top. We collectively look for that crack in the armor and, more often than not, we find it. Once opened, the fall from grace is often breathtaking, with revelation after revelation of misdeeds and dishonesty. And each time, we act surprised.
Most organized religions, Christianity in particular, are premised on the idea that to be human is to be fallible. Christ died for our sins, the Bible tells us. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do right, but it does mean we are going to fail as part of life. The most important part is to be honest about it, to learn from our mistakes, and take responsibility. You would never get any of that by reading the 24-hour news cycle that consists mainly of gotcha journalism.
The moral of the Edwards trial is also the extent to which we collectively are missing the point, sending us off in the direction of our own demise. Men make mistakes. Men who are taught to value their worth by power alone make more mistakes than most. And they lie about it to cover their tracks. This is a very unproductive cycle.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we spent more time talking about the truth of our lives as men? What if the cult of power and wealth were balanced by a cult of compassion or courage or integrity?
Maybe I am a dreamer and men are destined to inhabit the moral gutter in the public eye forever. But I keep meeting men who are so brave, so funny, so honest it makes my heart grow three sizes.