The outrage over John Edward’s admitted affair with a filmmaker transcends what we have seen with most recent sex scandals. This partly results from his repeated denials of the affair. Much more important, of course, is the fact that the affair took place while his wife was battling cancer. The two of them had already dealt with the unspeakable tragedy of losing a teenage son, and the public is furious that Edwards caused his devoted wife, who agreed to campaign for him even after being diagnosed with incurable bone cancer, more pain than any woman should be asked to deal with.
Why, people want to know, do men like John Edwards who have it all throw away their blessings? Why, when they have wives who will do everything for them, is it still never enough?
The answer is that men who cheat do not do so because they don’t love their wives but because they hate themselves, not because their wives are not caring but because their perforated sense-of-self is immune to affection. Were their wives to shower them with all the love in the world, it would simply seep through the broken shards of their shattered egos. When asked about the affair last year by the media, Edwards denied it by saying, "It’s completely untrue, ridiculous. I’ve been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years and, as anybody who’s been around us knows, she’s an extraordinary human being, warm, loving, beautiful, sexy, and as good a person as I have ever known. So the story’s just false." The form of his denial should have been a red flag. Men do not refrain from cheating because they have special wives but because they have a commitment to moral behavior and righteous action.
My purpose is not to kick a good man when he is down but to understand his actions so that the rest of us can learn from his tragic fall.
Men today feel like failures. Immersed as they are in a hyper-competitive culture that makes them feel as if they are valuable only through external achievement, they nurse a lifelong feeling of anonymity and insignificance. Their gnawing insecurity becomes the very engine of their success. Thus, they reason to themselves, if I become a rich trial lawyer and get invited into high society, I’ll be important. Oh, wait. That happened and I still feel like a failure. Time to become a senator. OK, I did that, and I still don’t feel fulfilled. Let’s go for the gold, president. But all that attention and power will never make these men feel as if they matter because it’s being pumped straight into a black hole. There is no bottom to their low self-esteem.
Once you make a man’s ego dependent not on the love he gets from his family but on the adoration he gets from crowds, he transfers the locus of his self-esteem away from his intimate circle and onto a fickle public. His need for public validation becomes an addiction. The wife who loves him cannot make him feel good about himself because, he reasons, if he is a great big nothing, then the woman dumb enough to marry him, however virtuous and accomplished, is an even bigger loser than he is. The wife is unwittingly punished for her devotion.
And that’s where you see great men becoming susceptible to affairs. It is specifically the woman to whom they are not married, the one who has not been devalued through a merger with a failure, who can make him feel consequential.
Edwards practically admitted as much in the statement he released: "In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up — feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself."
The egocentrism and narcissism to which he courageously confessed is always the hallmark of the broken American male who mistakenly believes that ephemeral attention is an adequate substitute for intimate love. Fractured males always beat themselves up, whether they succeed or fail. The irony, of course, is that he was always special. He always had a wife and children who loved him. But like so many successful men, it still wasn’t enough to make him feel unique. No, it took the adoration of the crowds and the compliments of complete strangers to make him feel unique.
Why wasn’t his family enough? Because men who feel like nothing see their families as impoverished extensions of their own nothingness. They require external validation to become a somebody.
Our nation witnessed the same tragic error with Bill Clinton. The most powerful man in the world needed the ego boost of feeling desirable to a twentysomething intern. External accoutrements, however grand, are always a poor substitute for authentic self-regard. Eliot Spitzer followed suit by throwing his career away with a high-class call girl. A woman who is so desirable that a night with her can set you back a thousand dollars can make a guy feel like a million bucks.
Far from judging John Edwards, my heart goes out to him. His is an American tragedy. Every day hundreds of millions of Americans go out to work believing that what they do in the office will be more central to determining success than what they do at home — that impressing the boss is more important than keeping your wife off Prozac and your kids off the streets. But are you a success in life if the people who mean the most to you think the least of you?
When John Edwards announced in a press conference that he would continue seeking the nomination of the Democratic party for president despite his wife’s metastasizing cancer, Elizabeth Edwards, who is universally admired by Americans, announced that she supported the decision because she did not want her children to believe that they had to give up their lives when faced with difficult battles.
But perhaps an even more important lesson to the convey to our children is that what will truly make them special in life is not becoming president but being committed and loving family members who always put one another first.