Journalist Joe Klein has been a candidate for an Ethics Dunce award for a long time, because he has been ethically suspect or worse for a long time. His defining integrity moment came when he lied about his authorship of the Bill Clinton roman-a-clef, “Primary Colors.” Since that time, Klein has gradually evolved into a shamelessly biased and ethically muddled political commentator from the left. Too bad. He’s a perceptive guy and a wonderful writer, but he makes his living now shooting from the hip, so we seldom get the benefit of his best qualities.
It was inevitable that the Chris Matthews Show would allow Klein’s ethical blindness to reach full flower. Matthews has been on his own journey of self-diminishment since MSNBC decided to become the anti-Fox; where once he could be counted on to treat the issues of the day fairly and avoid partisan cheerleading, the Obama years have seen him abandon any effort at objectivity or even-handedness. Matthews’ Sunday morning panel show now eschews ideological balance and has Matthews posing questions to a rotating group of reliable conservative-bashers, with an occasional straight journalist mixed in who at least pretends to be neutral. On Sunday, Matthews asked his panel about the appropriateness of the Justice Department’s prosecution of uber-cad John Edwards for violations of the federal election laws. It’s not a bad question, and reasonable people can disagree about the answer. The charges against Edwards stem from solicitation of large cash gifts from two long-time friends and supporters while he was simultaneously running for president and trying to cover up the existence of his love-child with Rielle Hunter and the adulterous affair that spawned her. The money was given directly to Hunter, raising a legal question as to whether it was really a campaign contribution at all.
It is true that most of the criticism of the prosecution has come from former Edwards admirers on the left, and also likely that if Edwards had been, say, former Senator John Ensign, many of these critics would be yelling for blood. Nevertheless, doubts about the Justice Department’s theory are justified, if not necessarily correct. It certainly expands the traditional definition of campaign contribution, to include “contribution by campaign supporters and personal friends to finance the cover-up of a scandal that would derail a campaign.” Yet I can see logic of the the argument that if a candidate’s own resources are tied up in his campaign, a large private donation (the figure was around $750,000) to bury a personal scandal that 1) would deep-six the candidate’s prospects and 2) would cost the candidate money he needed to keep campaigning could be defined as an end-around the campaign finances law. I’m not sure I agree with it, but that’s what trials are for.
The reasoning Klein used to condemn the prosecution, however, had nothing to do with its legal validity. Here was the exchange yesterday:
Chris Matthews: Welcome back. Our big question this week: Does it strike you as appropriate for the Justice Department to go after John Edwards with a criminal investigation of the use of donated money for Edwards’ mistress and their daughter? Joe Klein?
Joe Klein: Leave him alone. I mean, why waste our effort on that when we haven’t indicted a single banker after the crash of 2008?
[Other panelists chatter, interrupted by Matthews]
Chris Matthews: Yeah, we got enough real crime out there without worrying about this stuff. That’s my view.
So we now know that Matthews and Klein are the kind of drivers who protest to police officers who stop them for speeding by saying”With all the unsolved murders out there, why are you wanting your time on me for going a lousy 20 miles over the limit?”
The absurd-on-its-face argument that it is wrong to prosecute lesser crimes when greater ones remain unsolved or unpunished is the most threadbare of all rationalizations for illegal conduct. It is the intellectual equivalent of telling children that not eating their peas is an insult to children starving in Rawanda. Edwards’ crime, if it is a crime, has nothing whatsoever to do with the financial meltdown. It is being prosecuted under unrelated laws, by a federal prosecutor in South Carolina whose activities do nothing to reduce the accountability or legal jeopardy of Klein’s generic evil bankers. If Edwards broke laws, he should be prosecuted, just as anyone who breaks laws should be prosecuted. If guilty bankers are not prosecuted, that doesn’t make it inappropriate to prosecute Edwards.
Accepting the warped logic of Klein (who used the same argument to claim that President Clinton’s alleged perjury and obstruction of justice shouldn’t be investigated) and Matthews (who rejected the argument during Monicagate) embraces the toxic rationalization“It’s not the worst thing” as the formula for addressing not just ethical misconduct but legal misconduct as well. It makes ex-baseball star Manny Ramirez’s shrugging off of his illegal steroid use by saying, “It’s not like I killed someone” the standard for society’s ethical and legal policing.
It is just as important to enforce laws against vandalism and shoplifting as it is to enforce laws against murder and grand theft. Lawlessness and unethical conduct in a society can become culturally acceptable as much by the proliferation of small offenses as by the persistence of large ones. There are always worse offenders, worse crimes and worse criminals. Are Matthews and Klein prepared to nod sympathetically when Arnold Schwarzenegger tells them, “Hey, give me a break. At least my wife wasn’t dying of cancer and I wasn’t running for president on a personal integrity message…like John Edwards”?
Maybe so…except that Arnold is a Republican, and Matthews worships the Kennedys. Perhaps Arnold will try it on “Hardball,”, and we’ll find out.
The argument that real crimes should not be prosecuted until all the greater ones have (or whatever greater crime the pundit wants to use to trivialize the smaller one) is a ticket to societal and cultural chaos, and one that it is irresponsible to advocate, because it is so appealing to the corrupt, the guilty, and the dumb—a large and influential segment of the public.
I think it is worthwhile to prosecute Edwards. The legal theory has merit, and should be tested. When he accepted the money, Edwards was in the process of defrauding the Democratic Party and the American people by running a campaign on lies and misrepresentation. There are no laws against that, but any legitimate theory that he broke laws to accomplish that despicable goal serves the interests of justice.
And there is another good reason to pursue the charges against Edwards: it is the best chance of getting the legal community to do the right thing and take away his license to practice law. He should be disbarred anyway, of course: if conduct like Edwards’ doesn’t constitute a violation of the ethics rules “that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects,”then the profession’s supposed insistence on honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness is a self-serving veneer. Unfortunately, most lawyers, and most bar associations, are reluctant to draw the obvious professional conclusions from atrocious personal behavior, arguing that it will create an uncontrollable precedent.
“A high profile lawyer behaving like Edwards is horrible for the profession,” one colleague told me in an e-mail, “and sure it calls his fitness to practice into question. But bar associations are scared to death that every divorce and custody battle will turn into a bar discipline matter if Edwards loses his license without doing something dishonest as a lawyer, or being convicted of breaking the law.”
That alone is reason enough to prosecute John Edwards.