Every now and then I get to visit Chicago, and I usually stop in for a Guinness at Kitty O'Shea's, a faux Irish bar on the ground floor of the Chicago Hilton. Katherine O'Shea was the lover of the great Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell, the "uncrowned King of Ireland." Unfortunately, O'Shea was her married name, and the exposure of Parnell's adultery led to his political demise and his death from exhaustion.
It turns out that morality matters. If you don't believe me or Parnell, ask the uncrowned king of everything, John Edwards. While Edward's wife was being treated for cancer, and he was preparing a run for the Presidency, Edwards had an affair with one Rielle Hunter. The mainstream press did what it does best: paper over the indiscretions of Democrats, and so it was up the National Inquirer to blow Edwards' cover and expose the existence of Hunter's love child. The scandal almost certainly put an end to any political ambitions this smarmy man might have held onto, and just recently resulted in his wife's humiliating reappearance in public on Oprah and elsewhere. I am not sure quite what she I playing at, but it isn't going to be Edwards 3.
Dee Dee Myers has a pretty honest evaluation of the monkey business in Vanity Fair:
Elizabeth Edwards has refused to name her husband's mistress, Rielle Hunter. And in a cringe-inducing moment on Oprah, she said that she didn't know if the baby was John's, but that "it" didn't look like her children. How could she not know? How could he not know? The mystery is easily solved—and the consequences of "yes" are profound.
As my friend and former Edwards speech writer Wendy Button pointed, John made fighting poverty a central cause of his presidential campaign. And, as he knows, "one of the leading causes of poverty for women with children is a negligent father." He owes it to himself—and to the cause he championed—to step up, confirm whether or not the child is his, and, if she is, to do what he must.
He also owes it to the family of his former assistant, Andrew Young, a married father of three who implausibly claimed the baby was his. Why on earth would Andrew do such a thing—unless John asked him to? Could it be that the then presidential candidate believed the baby was his, and was trying to keep his world from crashing down around him?
But more than that, both John and Elizabeth owe it to their children to face the truth. I have no doubt this is an excruciating dilemma for Elizabeth. If the baby is John's, his former mistress—a woman she understandably loathes—will have a permanent call on her husband, and the other woman's baby forever will be connected to Elizabeth's children, a half-sibling about whom they will surely be curious and to whom they will surely feel a connection, despite the circumstances of her conception. It might seem easier not to know.
You don't have to look further than this to understand marriage. It arises from facts of nature that we humans share with many other species. In most species, males invest little or nothing in the rearing of offspring. Where males do invest, a moral problem arises: males have to be sure they are investing in their own offspring, and females have to be sure that the promised investment will be forthcoming. Both sides are tempted to cheat, and so both seek (more or less consciously) means of verification.
Marriage is an artificial institution designed to solve this problem. The rules are simple: the male will take responsibility for his spouse and children, and the spouse will give him every reason to believe that the children are his. This is the foundation of civil societies. When it works, most children have the support of two parents. When it fails, that is always accompanied by every kind of social dysfunction. Myers is right to think that, in betraying his wife, John Edwards was betraying the causes he stood for.
That is the point of marriage, and any thinking about protecting, reforming, or extending the institution must bear it in mind. I am guessing that same sex marriages generate some of the same dramas as traditional marriage. While children are not usually the issue (forgive pun), jealousy and infidelity probably feel much the same. If marriage is to work for anyone, it needs a social sanction. We ought to demonstrate the same indignation toward adultery as we due towards racism and other forms of intolerance. If you really believe in gay marriage or any other kind of marriage, that indignation is what it means.