February 2007 Ethics Dunce and Liar of the Month
Former Senator John EdwardsThis is the first double designation in the short history of the Ethics Scoreboard, but there is no doubt that Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards earned it. A politician whose public stance has always been one of gentility, fairness and civility, he cynically permitted his campaign to entrust its web commentary to two bloggers who exemplify the vicious, uncivil, unfair, scorched-earth rhetoric that is the scourge of the genre and coarsens national political discourse. This won him his Ethics Dunce cap: one cannot lay claim to ethical values and then acquire agents who can be counted upon to violate them on your behalf. Later, when some of the more intemperate postings of Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan raised objections from critics in the media and elsewhere, Edwards issued an absurd and disingenuous statement that simultaneously expressed disapproval of their past writing while announcing that they would stay with his campaign.
The fair translation of his response is: "I don't want to be accountable for what my hired guns say or do, I just want to get their constituency on my side." His statement, a lie that nobody was expected to believe because it was absurd on its face (and Edwards, a shrewd trial lawyer, understands the language well), earns him Liar of the Month.
Before we examine the true ethical rot demonstrated by Edwards here, let's look at some of his new hires' published words. Here is McEwan presenting her version of a trenchant, respectful and well-reasoned argument to counter those of abortion opponents:
Here she is describing President Bush:
And McEwan famously described Bush supporters as his "wingnut Christofascist base." But she's "Miss Manners" compared to Marcotte, who has been tapped as Edwards' head-blogger. Here is her response to Americans who have ethical and legal objections to abortion-on-demand:
And here is her style of fair analysis applied to the Duke lacrosse prosecution:
Marcotte also frequently slanders the Catholic Church and its adherents, as when she wrote in December that the Church's opposition to contraceptives was designed to force women to "bear more tithing Catholics."
Is the picture clear now? This is not civil discourse by any definition; this is not reasonable rhetoric; this is not fair or constructive or persuasive argument. It is blatantly unprofessional, foul-fingered, mean-spirited and hateful ranting, designed to stir the emotions of the already committed. To state what should be obvious, if the Edwards campaign hires people who write (and think) like this, the campaign and Edwards must endorse this style and sentiment for particular audiences it covets. If that is true, then neither Edwards nor his campaign have any commitment to fairness and civility at all.
Seen in this perspective, Edwards' statement announcing his decision to keep Marcotte and McEwan on staff is mind-boggling in its dishonesty. Here is what Edwards posted on his website. The Scoreboard cannot resist interlineating the thoughts that it induced upon first reading:
Then why hire people who communicate like that, Senator? Are we supposed to believe that you hired two bloggers without actually reading what they wrote? On the contrary, it is obvious that you hired them because of what they wrote. One expects people to behave in the future as they have in the past. There are thousands upon thousands of writers and commentators who manage to express themselves without calling those who disagree with them "fascists" and "motherfuckers." You chose to hire two bloggers who use this kind of discourse. What is the reasonable conclusion that follows from that fact?
If someone uses foul language in a job interview, on a resume, or in a sample of their work, they don't get the job…unless that's what the employer wants. This is what is so unbelievable about Edwards' statement. This is the style of the commentators he hired; he is keeping them on, and yet he claims he disapproves of how and what they write. Who could believe this?
A brain aneurism-producing non-sequitur. "Giving everyone a fair shake? Does one hire a sex-offender as a baby sitter and say that it is wrong to dismiss him because that wouldn't be giving him a "fair shake?" Do you let an arsonist stay in your house as a "fair shake" until he burns it to the ground? When an employee's past performance shows that he or she has consistently ignored the standards of conduct the employer seeks, letting the employee continue in the job isn't a "fair shake." It is insane…unless the past performance exemplifies what the employer really wants. Fairness has nothing to do with it.
Back to Edwards…
Note to John Edwards: when someone refers to Fundamentalist Christians as "wingnut Christofacists" and the Catholic religion as "ancient mythology," as Marcotte has done, she intends to malign someone's faith, regardless of what she claims afterward.
And you know it.
We're beginning a great debate about the future of our country, and we can't let it be hijacked. It will take discipline, focus, and courage to build the America we believe in.
Yes sir, it will take discipline, focus, courage, and blog assassins to keep your Angry Left constituency foaming at the mouth. Apparently the America Edwards believes in is one in which respect, civility and fairness to those with differing points of view has no place.
Let us be clear. Ethical leaders do not knowingly hire as their representatives on the internet, in the media or anywhere else individuals who openly engage in unethical practices. They also do not extend their endorsement and integrity to those whose conduct directly contradicts basic ethical principles like respect and fairness. But this is what Edwards has done with his eyes wide open, and it tells us a great deal about the quality of his own values. As for Edward's statement in support of his new standard-bearers, it represents pure and cynical dishonesty…cynical, because he must know it is intrinsically incredible. He said, in essence, "I believe these two bloggers will not engage in the kind of over-the-top, excessive, personal name-calling and denigration of political adversaries that was the only reason we hired them in the first place." With a message like that, the usual "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" is superfluous. The winks and nudges are built in.
This episode is as disgraceful as it is revealing about the true nature of John Edwards.
Addendum: The Scoreboard cannot leave Senator Edwards and his pet mad-dog bloggers without mentioning the singularly ethics-challenged defenses mounted on Edward's behalf by others on the web. Exemplifying their logic was Media Matters, the so-called "media watchdog" site run by right-wing hit man turned left-wing hit man David Brock, perhaps the most ethically clueless political operative this side of Dick Morris. Media Matters argued that conservative bloggers and Rush Limbaugh were just as uncivil and inflammatory as Marcotte and McEwan. So what? Edwards shouldn't hire them either. One cannot justify unethical conduct by showing others engage in it too. The other main theme of the arguments coming out of the blogging jungle is that the characterizations of Marcotte and McEwan are invalid because they are politically motivated. This is also ethically nonsensical. One can evaluate the legitimacy of the criticism without reference to the motives behind it. Sure: those who have a political interest in undermining Edwards' candidacy are at the forefront of those questioning his principles and judgement in hiring the two bloggers. That doesn't make Edwards' lack of candor and endorsement of uncivil political discourse any more acceptable. The fevered rationalizations from the political pundits in the blogosphere reinforce the Scoreboard's assessment that ethics is an alien concept to most of them.
Update: While this essay was waiting on the runway for posting, Amanda Marcotte resigned, saying that her presence was hurting Edwards and adding that she was the victim of a vendetta launched by Catholic zealots. The next day, McEwan followed with her own resignation. Both bloggers maintained that the content and opinions on their personal blogs were in no way a reflection of the Edwards campaign which is, of course, nonsense. The personal activities and communications of a staff member of a political campaign always reflect on that campaign, because it reveals what kinds of people the candidate admires, accepts, and is willing to associate himself with. Imagine, for example, a Bush Assistant Attorney General writing racist comments on his personal blog and arguing that it didn't reflect on the Administration. But at least Marcotte and McEwan did the right thing.
Unlike John Edwards.