Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Personal is Personal

It's been a while now, but John Dickerson posted an article making the case that a recent ad by John Edwards pointed to some of the Edwards family's tragedies, but that this was OK, since, "he has endured his son's death and his wife's illness, and that not only makes him a tough guy but gives him a sense of perspective about the value of life."

Elizabeth Edwards responded to the first claim; I'd like to discuss the second.

To take Dickerson's adjectives one at a time -- one doesn't because one has had bad experiences. Almost everyone has endured bad things, perhaps not as bad as the Edwardses, but I know of few people whose lives have not been touched somehow by untimely death or chronic disease. Are we thus all qualified to be president?

As for perspective, that depends. Perhaps having experienced the death of a son. Edwards would be determined as president to never make a decision that would lead to another family enduring the same pain. That sounds laudable, but could be irresponsible, since part of a president's job is to order young men and women into harm's way.

All enduring personal tragedies means is that you have endured personal tragedies. Some people emerge from them better people; some emerge bitter and with a victim mentality. Some are the same. What matters is how you handle it.

Which is why it's unfair to use it in a campaign. I have no reason to believe that the Edwards family has endured their tragedies with the utmost class and dignity, but what if they hadn't? If they wanted us to give them credit for their personal tragedies, would it be in bounds for the Obama or Clinton campaigns to question how the Edwards family dealt with them? Most of us would say no. The end result would be a game of one-upmanship game of who's had the most trying personal tragedies. Unless one subscribes to Scott Adams's theory of presidential luck, that's not what the presidential race should be about.

Dickerson points to McCain's use of his experience as a POW as precedent, but qualifies it with, "though without the obvious element that McCain's suffering was in service to his country." I think that's an understatement. McCain's story is powerful in part because he could have made things easier on himself bu acting less honorably, but didn't. He took the hard course, and behaved with obvious valor and courage. Dickerson wants us to give Edwards credit for just having had bad things happen to him. As John Kerry found out, even valor in military service can be called into question in a political campaign. But how can one question how one deals with the death of a son?

If Edwards has the toughness and perspective Dickerson claims for him, then he won't use his personal tragedies as a shortcut to demonstrate these qualities. And if he does, I hope we don't fall for it.