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Radiant Therapy
John Edwards Self-Bounces

But is America still curable?

Too much is made of the intersection of the personal and the political. Most of the time—in matters of sexual habits, in matters of religion, drug use, drinking and other matters that have nothing to do with morals or smarts or the ability to lead—the intersection is irrelevant. It may be what most journalists and voters focus on. But that’s because journalists lack the skill, the courage, the resources or the quality editors to focus on more substantial issues, and because audiences naturally bottom-feed. The public will always take prurience over substance—which is why letting journalism turn into a public-driven pander does what it’s done: reduce journalism, and public policy along with it, to a variant of gossipy polemics. The parody known as fox news isn’t king of the cable circus for nothing. Obviously there are times when the intersection of the personal and the political is relevant, although not nearly as much as politicians and their handlers like to make it seem. John McCain isn’t a better person because he was held prisoner in North Vietnam for five and a half years. He may well have been made a worse person for it, if the nation has to endure McCain battling his demons through a presidency. Nor is a person made automatically better for having served in the military. The opposite is more likely, considering the traumas modern soldiers endure and the mental health issues an estimated third of them come home with, after serving in battle zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what’s one to do with a situation like John Edwards’, who just announced that his wife’s cancer is back, that it’s incurable, and that he will—with two children in elementary school—carry on the campaign as she carries on her own fight? It was Edwards who called a mid-day news conference, Edwards who led it, with his wife at his side, Edwards who invited his wife’s doctor to be present ands answer questions, much like doctors who’ve just performed some minor surgery on a major figure are made available to the press to discuss the procedure. But why? It’s understood that when Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton had to see the doctor, the nation had a right to be concerned, but not about the details of the polyps in their rear (even though once again most people fawn after just such details). The concern is about whose hands are on the till, and only to the extent that doctors may say when and how the president would be back at work. In this case, it isn’t the principal who’s affected, but his spouse. It does warrant some attention, but to this extent?

The natural expectation was that he’d drop out. It may well be what he intended to do up to the moment when he crossed the threshold of his Chapel Hill home and into the sunlight, when he decided that bailing out is no cure, either. The decision to carry on is admirable. Romantically, it anticipates the Jeffersonian president, widowed (at thirty-nine) and lonely in his White House but for the occasional hemmings and goings. Realistically it anticipates a more formal announcement a few weeks and months down the line, when today’s announcement will have proven more emotionally satisfying than politically useful, that Edwards is pulling out. No candidate in this day and age can expect to go very far without overwhelming focus. No contender would be forgiven for having such an overwhelming focus, if he was capable of it, while a sick wife is being bombarded with chemotherapy and young children are crying at the prospect of her impending death, with their father on the road: To be sure, none of this is relevant to the presidential capabilities of a man. If that’s how the Edwardses choose to proceed, more power to them. But that admirable decision isn’t what they’ll be judged on.

Which raises again the question of today’s announcement, the manner in which it was made. It’s a concession to the public’s desire to know always more, to be “included” in a personable candidate’s decisions. But it’s not a wise concession. The announcement of the returning cancer could have been made in line with the decision to continue the campaign: as one more challenge along the way, rather than as an open door to inquiries about the way ahead. Instead, Edwards has enabled the paradox that will prove fatal to his campaign. He’s made his wife’s health a campaign issue. He’s made his own decision-making about his wife’s health a campaign issue. The Coulter creeps will pounce all over him for it, and the nation’s judgmental, mobbish mentality will subtly then unquestionably follow until Edwards is driven out. (Good news for Al Gore: what more signs does he need to quit his admittedly well earned holier-than-thou circuit and jump in already?) Let’s hope this doesn’t start a trend where the presidential candidate’s spouses and family members become grist for subsequent inquisitions. That may be too late.

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