WASHINGTON -- Every sex scandal, it seems, comes with its own catchphrase, a linguistic contortion destined to outlive our memory of the seamy details: "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." Or "wide stance." Now comes former -- and, I think it's safe to say, not future -- presidential candidate John Edwards with his own distinctive concept: 99 percent honesty. In Edwards' exact words, explaining why he denied tabloid stories about his affair because, he says, they weren't completely true: "Being 99 percent honest is no longer enough."
He was once derided as the Breck girl. Now it turns out we're talking Ivory soap, 99 and 44/100ths percent pure.
But the thing about honesty: It's the last 1 percent -- even that last .56 percent -- that's the tough part.
And, to continue the soap metaphor, if there's anyone out there who believes Edwards is coming entirely clean now, I've got a job for you in the Edwards 2012 presidential campaign. Plenty of openings there.
You don't have to be an Edwards-caliber trial lawyer to know the right questions to ask on cross-examination here: If you lied then, why should anyone believe you now?
He'll be happy to take a paternity test but, conveniently, now she won't? She's getting $15,000 a month from his top moneyman but he doesn't know about it? A picture with the baby -- who can remember?
Elizabeth Edwards, mercifully, didn't stand -- or sit -- by her man during the "Nightline" interview. This was a good thing. Was there a wife in America who didn't want to slap him right across his smug face when he pointed out, "first of all," that she was in remission when he cheated?
In a posting on Daily Kos, Elizabeth Edwards pleaded for an end to "the present voyeurism." No one wants to add to Elizabeth Edwards' misery. She's been dealt a terrible hand.
Except, he was the one who told us that character counted. As in these remarks about Bill Clinton: "I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen."
Or, in a March 2007 interview with Katie Couric discussing the return of Elizabeth's cancer: "I think every single candidate for president, Republican and Democratic, have lives, personal lives, that indicate something about what kind of human being they are. And I think it is a fair evaluation for America to engage in to look at what kind of human beings each of us are, and what kind of president we'd make."
What was Elizabeth Edwards thinking, sitting there with her husband the philanderer and Couric?
In fact, if she wanted to avoid "the present voyeurism," what was she thinking when she supported his running? She knew about his affair, she knew that everything about a presidential candidate's life is at risk of exposure, and she encouraged him? If she cared about shielding her family from this terrible intrusion, what did she think was going to happen if he won the nomination -- or the presidency?
There are two especially creepy aspects to this story. The first is the reverential, almost messianic way Elizabeth Edwards spoke about "this fine man" during the interview with Couric. This was disconcerting at the time; excruciating, in retrospect.
"It's important that the American people have the opportunity to have a president like him," Elizabeth Edwards explained. "I didn't want it (her cancer) to take this away, not just from me but from those people who depend on our having the kind of president he would be."
Or this, just a few months later, asserting that her husband would be a better champion for women than Hillary Clinton: "She's just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see," Edwards told Salon's Joan Walsh. "John is."
The second, even creepier part is John Edwards' resort to the exculpatory language of pop psychology to explain his behavior. "I went from being a senator, a young senator to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want."
Right. The adulation made him do it. I don't think this man is anywhere in the neighborhood of 99 percent honesty.