It’s been about a week since John Edwards accepted responsibility for his “sins” in his press conference following the not-guilty verdict in his federal finance charges case. Making the distinction between his personal failings and his commission of crimes was a key strategy in mounting his defense. It is an important distinction. What worries me now is the work he plans to do for “impoverished children.” The New York Times reports that,
“Mr. Edwards closed his statement by saying that he believed that God was not finished with him yet and that he would spend the rest of his life trying to be the best father he could and work at how he could serve impoverished children in the United States and around the world.”
I can’t help but to consider the limited way that Edwards might be conceptualizing what it means to be “impoverished.” For him, it seems to refer exclusively to money. In the Nightline segment that I watched, Edwards spoke of seeing children in the most poverty stricken places and believes that the Lord might have him serve those children. Poor children could certainly benefit from whatever money John Edwards can give them; they should take his money. Edwards, however, might want to spend some time considering how an expanded definition of “impoverishment” might be serviceable here. In his case, moral impoverishment best captures the “sins” that he accepts responsibility for and surely impacted his own children. The fact that they have money does not mean that they are not suffering as a result of their father’s moral impoverishment, despite his material wealth.
The public humiliation that Edwards has brought upon his own children would seem to create a strong need for him to consider the wreckage of moral impoverishment. Working through the salacious details of his own recklessness towards the feelings of his children is worth his investment. His actions put them under considerable public scrutiny. It pains me to think about how they were forced to enter into their public world and then come to terms with how they were being perceived; wondering how they would respond. I strongly identify with how his children might have suffered. Having to suffer through my own father’s worst times when I was a young girl made me sympathetic to my peers who were suffering the sins of their fathers.
My father came to my high school once to taunt me. I can’t even say that the taunting contained a plot, he just seemed to want to make me feel uncomfortable. I knew when I saw him that he had been plotting this bully session obsessively for at least that entire day. He could get that way when he was in one of his dark moods and when I saw him, I knew that I was in for something mean-spirited and largely incoherent. So on that day, he made me answer questions with language that good manners forced me to respond to in a way he could anticipate and thus controlled. All of my track teammates were around and they let me have my moment of glassy eyes after he left without question. And in turn, I defended them when they showed up to practice with startlingly jet black hair that covered their natural blond locks and stared off into space until their fathers came to practice; I watched them cry.
I thought about those Edwards children who might have had money but may not have had a mature enough relationship to language to respond to the sadness or to the curiosity of their peers and their peers’ parents and their teachers who wondered about them. How they all might have struggled with trying to show concern for those children who had to suffer their mother, Elizabeth Edwards’s pain, heartbreak, and sorrow as she was herself dying from cancer and losing her world. Though she isn’t old enough to have peers who worry about her yet in this way, I thought about the fact that Edwards’s affair has informed his youngest child’s public identity.
My father would spend the rest of his life “trying to be the best father he could be” and I think it was time well-spent. He did charitable work in El Salvador in 1999 and he worked with homeless families consistently until he passed in 2010. As he did it, he never overlooked his own impoverishment. In an interview that I conducted with my father during the summer of 2006, you get a real strong sense of the kind of thinking that my father did over his limitations as a father. Here’s a portion of the transcript where he reflects on his parenting when compared to his brother, my Uncle B.B.:
Dad: As a father? I’ve been envious of my brother’s relationship with his children. As a father-
Dad: Oh hell yeah.
Me: O.K., because as I kid I remembered you’d talk about the pressure that he put on his kids that you weren’t happy with.
Dad: There’s a staying power-
Dad: That in spite of the unhappiness, in spite of the fact that I disagreed with what he was doing, he didn’t go nowhere.
Dad: You know. I can’t say that with you. See, but like I say, as an athlete, I’m not concerned about the game and the score of the game in the first quarter. You know. When it’s over, look at the scoreboard now. I feel like I’m a blessed individual that God put your mother into my life producing you. Oprah Winfrey? You ain’t seen greatness yet. I don’t care how much money Oprah got that if you gave me [a substance], my daughter versus Oprah, I’m picking my daughter. Not because she’s my daughter, it’s because I think she’s a great person. It was always real important to me…In the case of my brother, in spite of the fact–I made some youth adjustments, some peer pressure adjustments that affected my relationship with my daughter that all the things I said I’d never do, happened. And are there some regrets? Sure there are. You know. What do you do? Check me in the fourth quarter.
Me: Mm hmm. And as you say, rebound.
Dad: Oh I’m Dennis Rodman, I can rebound.
Me: But you think your brother is a cool father?
Dad: Oh God yeah. God yeah. How can you not be a cool father when you had health care for your kids and I didn’t have health care for mine? How can you not be a cool father when you were working everyday for your kid to not to have a scholarship but you could pay for them to go to school? How can you not be a cool father when you took your kid out of this environment and put them in a different one with a higher degree of education? When you always made sure that there was food on the table? That you were always there with some Kleenex? That you were always there at that baseball game that I was talking about?
Me: Mm hmm.
Dad: Oh it’s different things about him Bean(voice starts to break) that I respect the shit out of him for (trails off)…
Even if my father had not done a day’s work with “impoverished” children in El Salvador, I think his honesty about his limitations and his recognition of my Uncle’s good example redeemed him in many, many ways. I think he offers a good model for John Edwards to use for his own pursuit of being a better father to his children. My father would smile at the suggestion.