Quick review of the scorecard: (oops, no pun intended!)…
John F. Kennedy
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Hmmm. This is gettting to be a pretty distinguished list! Now we can add John Edwards to the roster. What do they have in common? These men are, or were, Democrats and Republicans, Presidents, Governors, Senators, Speakers of the House, members of Congress. Powerful, righteous rulers. We’re not talking preachers gone astray or Hollywood dabblers. These are serious men.
And every single one of them cheated on their wives, many if not most quite notoriously while they were still in office. And most publicly lied about the affairs for a very long time.
When I heard the news that John Edwards finally confessed to his long-rumored “liaison” with someone not his wife (well, Elizabeth’s cancer was in remission, he said so shamefully… echoing Newt Gingrich’s disgusting treatment of his wife during her cancer battle), I didn’t think of Bill and Monica, or Eliot and the hooker, or JFK and Judith, or Rudy and whichever number, who’s counting.
Instead, I though of Franklin and Lucy.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the most revered of presidents in the 20th Century, allegedly carried on a long affair with Lucy Rutherford, his personal secretary. My summer reading included Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Pulitzer-Prize winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II . I highly recommend this fascinating account of life inside the Roosevelt family and administration during that extraordinary period in American history. Among many poignant scenarios depicting the long estrangement of Franklin and Eleanor, and Lucy’s role in their private lives, the most moving passages come in the moment of his death when the woman at his side was Lucy, not Eleanor, and Eleanor’s subsequent realization of this ultimate betrayal of her devotion to him (even as Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok is also a topic of much historical speculation.)
Of course, back in that day, there was no 24/7 news cycle, no Internet (imagine!), no cable news pundits. Politicians were hounded by the “yellow journalists” of that day, yes, but the private lives of the powerful were largely hidden from public criticism, no matter how disreputable.
When I heard about this latest scandal involving former Senator, former presidential candidate John Edwards, I first resorted to my standard exclamation, “What was he thinking????!!!” It’s so hard to imagine any person who lives in the public eye thinking that he can get away with such indiscretions today. It’s an abysmal betrayal of family and marriage, of course — but also just so incredibly stupid, I “just don’t get it” about why they keep thinking they have some magic invisible cloak.
Then I remembered Franklin and Lucy, and in a flash I understood: he thinks he’s FDR. They all think they can be FDR. The idea of the untouchable powerful man carrying on his private affair is long ingrained in the imagination of American politicians.
Guess what, guys? It’s not 1945 anymore.
Remarkably, Elizabeth Edwards wrote a blog on Daily Kos defending her man. Her fidelity to him is reminiscent of Eleanor’s steadfastness despite her humiliation by her husband. I can well imagine that if Eleanor Roosevelt were alive today, this inveterate columnist would have become a blogger, and we might have learned more about what really went on in that extraordinary time.
The real heroes of these stories are the women who carry on with dignity in spite of the betrayals and lies.