Since there has been no end to pop psychologizing about John Edwards, I can't resist the impulse to weigh in, not about him individually but about why the issue matters and should matter. After the obvious question of why he would or could do such a thing (when will they learn?), what seems to puzzle most commentators in the media and blogosphere is why a "private" issue like adultery should have any bearing on a person's fitness for public office. The answer is that a president, or at least the president in a culture like ours, is not only, or even primarily, an administrative technician, but rather is elected to represent and embody the nation's values.
"Why can't we be more like Europe?" a number of commentators have asked. They argue, accurately, that the blatant lying (Edwards's "tabloid trash" denial) is necessary only because of the allegedly absurd sexual standard and public nosiness about the same. Why can't politicians be free to fornicate in peace so long as they are breaking no laws and performing their public duty? The answer is that for the president at least, a crucial part of the public duty in question is respecting the value system of the majority (so long as it does not oppress the minority).
Unfortunately perhaps for liberals (and I am to the left of center), the majority of Americans deem fidelity in marriage to be a crucial value to be upheld in the public sphere. And not only fidelity in marriage--it would seem that while we may be ready for a biracial or a female president, we're probably not ready for a single president (even if there were convincing evidence that he or she wasn't gay). A single and childless presidential candidate would not, and could not, be seen to share the values of the majority. For the same reason, an atheist or homosexual could not be elected president. These limitations may change of course, as more people choose not to get married, procreate, or go to church, but that lies in the future. For now, spouse, children, and church must be in the political picture for national office, thanks to democracy. Again, I'm not saying it should be this way, but it is.