CHARACTER. Anyone wondering what John Edwards thinks about religion -- his own, and the country�s -- would do well to read this long interview he did with Beliefnet. As a non-believer myself (and yes, more of us should be willing to say so publicly -- kudos to Harold for doing so recently), I found a good deal there to make me comfortable with Edwards. Despite his professions of a powerful faith, he declines to say that America is a Christian nation, and comes out against organized prayer in schools and posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, two distressingly popular items on the Christian right agenda.

Amongst all the recent discussion of how much voters should consider candidates� personal lives, there is something else to note. In the interview, Edwards says that after their son Wade was killed in a car accident in 1996, �my faith came roaring back and has stayed with me since that time.� I have no idea if I�m representative, but as a parent, I can tell you that the fact that the Edwardses endured what is without question the most awful thing a human being can experience -- the death of a child -- and came through it with their marriage intact, and without losing their minds, fills me with an admiration that is difficult to describe. At the risk of being exclusionary to the young and childless here on Tapped, if you don�t have kids, you wouldn�t understand. Does it say something about what kind of president Edwards would be? I think so. It's not as if my vote is decided, but the fact is that the presidency is a unique office, one in which personal weaknesses and strengths are far more important than they are in, say, a legislator.

A member of Congress can have all sorts of personal foibles -- he can be cruel, or stupid, or eccentric -- but if he isn�t corrupt, ultimately the only thing that makes much of a difference in our lives is how he votes. But a president is different. American voters don�t vote for president by a checklist of issues, and they shouldn�t. Think about our current president. What is it about him that has led to the awe-inspiring magnitude of the damage he has caused? It isn�t because he had the wrong positions on issues -- you could have taken another Republican with the same basic policy goals and put him in office, and the destruction wouldn�t have been nearly as great. No, it is Bush�s character that led us here: his lack of curiosity, his delusions of destiny, his simplistic thinking, his Manichean worldview and intolerance for the possibility that he might be wrong (or for anyone who would raise that possibility). And what made FDR or Lincoln great? It wasn�t a series of position papers, it was their character that enabled them to respond to crises in admirable ways.

So while Edwards is right that no one should vote for him simply out of sympathy for his family�s struggle, there�s nothing wrong with watching how he deals with that struggle and making some reasonable conclusions about what it says about the kind of person he is. It may be an imperfect means to assess how he would deal with the unique challenges a president faces, but at least it�s something.

--Paul Waldman

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