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Rielle, Oprah and Zen: America's Truth-Off

5 years ago
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Since the publication of "Game Change," the revelations of a sex tape and the alarming photo accompaniment to Rielle Hunter's GQ interview, we can safely say that dirt on the John Edwards scandal has entered an era of diminishing returns. America could handle the soap-worthy battle between a cancer-ridden wife and a wanton home-wrecker, but even the most salacious viewer knows that when the lady of the house takes off her pants and kneels next to the stuffed Elmo, it's time to pick up your toys and go home.

Still, Rielle Hunter is the closest our nation has ever come to a true maitresse-en-titre, and I was eager to see a "Clash of the Titans"-like face-off between her and Oprah, our nation's unofficial stand-in for wives, moms and wholesome caregivers everywhere. (The closest Monica Lewinsky ever came to joining in the national conversation around her scandal, after all, was to release a line of handbags.) Would she be defiant? Break down? Offer a heartfelt apology? Laugh in Elizabeth's face? Would she -- most important -- tell us her status with John?

Hunter did none of these things -- but I think even Oprah was startled by the tack she chose. Smiling beatifically, Hunter simply took a leaf from her hostess. In the true spirit of Oprah lovers everywhere, she looked into her heart and used every question to present the affair as a series of teachable moments on a path toward spiritual growth and truth.

It's hard to be hoisted on your own cottage industry, and time and time again, Oprah could only react to Rielle's answers with sheer incredulity. Why had Rielle started an affair with a man who was not available? "Because he was" -- spiritually -- "available." Why had she not waited until he had "figured his mess out"? "Our hearts were louder than our minds." What about how he'd broken up with her when they were discovered, then renewed his vows with Elizabeth? "He was caught so . . . there was a big reaction to being caught." Didn't that rejection mean something? "It's wrong to stand before God and make a vow that you know is not true." John was "out of alignment," not "living a life of integrity." By the time Rielle asserted her affair was John's "trying to make his life a life of truth," Oprah actually paused to inform Rielle that viewers everywhere were reeling. "It's hard to understand what you're saying, because all we're seeing is lies, lies, lies."

And thus we arrive at a paradox in our highly moral culture. We prize the public good, but when our individual desires run counter to it, we're much happier inventing a reason why it is good than sitting with our scruples for 10 minutes. And when you're sleeping with a man whose wife has cancer, your scramble will be desperate indeed. When Oprah asks Rielle, "What do you say to those who think what you did with John Edwards was wrong?" Rielle replies, "I'd say to all of them -- it doesn't have to do with me because they don't know me. Their feelings have to do with them."

When Oprah asks, "Do you think you hurt Elizabeth Edwards?" Rielle pauses, as if taking a serious assay of anyone's rights to speculate about anything. "You would have to ask Elizabeth that." (First-year philosophy majors, I hope you were taking notes.) Finally, as if realizing she'll have to join Rielle in the land of her own lexicon, Oprah offers up, "What do you do when your truth is hurting other people?" 0 for 3.

It's no surprise that a self-serving belief system leaves room for people to be monstrous, but maybe we should start to question if it leaves people room to be anything else. There are so many answers Rielle could have given Oprah that would have made sense -- "Because we wanted to" -- but none of them would have given Rielle license.

Similarly, if you believe anything in "Game Change," Elizabeth Edwards was so loath to lose her saintly public image that she waged a toxic campaign to keep it propped up. And let's not forget John Edwards himself, who wanted to be the public Mr. Elizabeth Edwards so much it became necessary to find a private Ms. Rielle Hunter to take up the emotional slack -- and boy, did having those two worlds collide ever blow.

But maybe it's the American public's fault, too, for being such whores for our folksy heroes in the first place. What if John Edwards had been able to run for president as a divorced man with a taste for freaky blondes? What if Elizabeth Edwards hadn't felt like simply standing at her husband's side was the most powerful role she could occupy in the world? What if Rielle hadn't felt like one mildly deviant encounter had to be part of the great path to spiritual enlightenment? Would they have wound up in a pickle anyway? Or was it trying to be good that made them so, so bad?

A friend of mine, a genteel executive, devoted wife and elegant mother of two, has an even more revolutionary stance. The other day, as we flipped through an Us with Tiger and Elin on the cover, she impatiently asked, "Why does he have to be married? Why can't he just bang skanks, and that's his deal? Why can't he just be the golfer that bangs skanks?"

I admit, it doesn't quite have the ring of, "What if your truth hurts another person?" But if I can ever get our culture to sit down for an interview, that's the first question I'm going to ask.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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