Monday, March 26, 2007
A Nation Of Busybodies, Gossips, And Scolds. And, For What?
I've avoided commenting on Elizabeth Edwards' heartbreaking reoccurrance of breast cancer; having had the disease myself, every story like hers stirs up my worst fears. I really liked Elizabeth Edwards during the entire Kerry/Edwards campaign; she seemed smart, down-to-earth, warm, real. I was pretty disappointed when she recently took a sexist potshot at Hillary Clinton and I called her on it. I haven't read her book, Saving Graces. I'm terribly sorry to hear about her reoccurrance and amazed at the strength and equanimity that she's showing in the face of it. I hate the notion that breast cancer survivors are supposed to be "examples," of anything, but given Ms. Edwards' place in the national spotlight, she's certainly in a position to do a world of good for breast cancer patients, many of whom still suffer from society's perception (and, sometimes, their own) that cancer=instant death.
I'm breaking my silence, though, because I think Digby's post concerning criticism of Ms. Edwards makes an incredibly important point. Digby says:
Now, I'm sure [the author of a hit piece on Ms. Edwards] will immediately tell us all that we should care about her shallow "diagnosis" because it illuminates some aspect of the Edwards' characters. That's always the first refuge of the scandalmonger caught in flagrante and trying to spin her way out of being seen as a voyeur. But nobody can know what really goes on inside somebody else's marriage. . . . Let's face it, analyzing other people's realtionships inevitably reveals more about you than them.
Back when the Clinton marriage was under the microscope for years on end, we were told by every tattler with a microphone that it was terribly important that we know all the dirty details of their lives because it allowed us to assess the president's ability to do his job. That was nonsense. Our current president has what appears to be a very stable, traditional marriage (which everyone treated as if it meant they'd been ordained by god himself) and it said absolutely nothing about his ability to run this country. The awful results of using that political "metric" are clear for all of us to see.
Digby's right. Some people with what almost anyone would call shitty marriages acquit themselves quite well in their careers and some people with what anyone would consider to be an exemplary marriage do a crappy job at work. Some people who aren't married are quite happy that way and find that it lets them focus more of their attention on a career that they love, while others believe that it's their supportive marriage that lets them do the best job that they can at work. Some people have long-term partnerships that aren't marriages and that seem to work for them. The one thing that all of these relationships have in common is that they're really no one else's business. I imagine that, generally, even the people in the relationship might give you different answers on different days if you could get an honest answer as to how they really feel about their relationships.
We've created this ridiculous fetish in America about some perfect nuclear family with a love-matched successful man and smiling supportive wife, their happy, well-adjusted 2.5 kids, and either a cat or a dog. That's not the model of family life portrayed in, for example, the xian's holy book, nor is it the model that's been prevalent over most of the world for most of the world's history. It's not a model that works for even lots of Americans and it's about time that we got over our fetishization of it. And, as Digby points out, it's an incredibly shitty way to decide who will make a good president.
George Washington is rumored to have married his wife, a then-widow, at least in large part for her money. Lincoln, perhaps America's greatest president, had what looks to have been a troubled marriage to a troubled woman. FDR was a pretty effective president and he had what, from the outside, at least, appears to have been a rather complicated marriage. Eisenhower may or may not have had an affair and Mamie may or may not have known about it. John Kennedy is considered to have been effective during his short time in office and we now know that he was a serious philanderer. Nixon was never accused of chasing other women and he was a disaster as a president. Gerry Ford, hardly counted as one of the greatest presidents, had the prototypical happy nuclear family, although his wife was later revealed to be a drug addict. Jimmy Carter, considered by many (not necessarily me) to have been a somewhat ineffective president, is still married to and actively involved in many causes with his wife Rossalyn, his admission to having committed adultery by lusting in his heart for other women notwithstanding. Reagan's family life was also, by all accounts, complicated; some of his children actively diskliked his wife Nancy. Bush I is reputed to have had a long-standing affair that hurt his wife. And then there was Bill Clinton, popular in the U.S. and abroad, father to a seemingly incredibly well-adjusted daughter, and, like Kennedy, a serial philanderer.
The point is that there seems to be little correlation between the overall "success" or "failure" of any given presidential marriage and the job that the president did. Which, when you think about it, really isn't that surprising, or wouldn't be, if Americans (and Americans do seem to be worse about this than, say, Europeans or South Americans) didn't make such a ridiculous big deal out of "family" and "family values."
We'd do well to get over it.
John Edwards isn't my first choice for the Democratic nominee, but that's more because I'd like to see a woman or an African American in office, after two hundred plus years of rich white men, than anything else. I like his message of populism. But his wife's health is a matter between him, Ms. Edwards, and her doctors. It's irrelevant to whether or not he should be the nominee or the president. Or, it would be in any rational world.