After John Edwards was found not guilty of violating campaign finance law by paying off his mistress, Slate’s Emily Bazelon summed it up perfectly, writing that he was “Loathsome but not a criminal.”
As some observers noted, “It was unprecedented and unwise” to think jurors would find him guilty — merely for accepting money from friends in order to cover up the affair.
The legal part might be unprecedented. But the behavior was surely not.
For example, going back a century or so, Warren G. Harding engaged in multiple affairs — which were hushed up by his political allies. One “affair lasted until 1920, when Harding ran for president,” writes Barry Hankins in Jesus and Gin. “During the election campaign the Republican Party helped keep the affair secret by sending [Harding’s paramour and her husband] on a cruise to the Far East and paying them $20,000 plus a monthly stipend as long as Harding was in office.”
Was Edwards’ deed worse? Keep in mind, unlike Edwards — who merely ran for president and vice president — Harding was elected president. And just as they would a generation later when John F. Kennedy was in the White House, journalists helped conceal Harding’s dalliances. That is the historical norm, by the way. But things have changed. It’s much more dangerous to be a philandering politician these days.
(Ironically, it was the Teapot Dome scandal — not his infidelity — that stained Harding’s legacy. It appears what sparks outrage has changed.)
We can change the laws, but man’s perfectibility remains elusive. For better or worse, our campaign finance rules and media landscape have evolved since the roaring 20s.
But human nature hasn’t kept pace.