By John Barron
In American political history, perhaps only Richard Nixon ever experienced a similarly epic fall.
In 2004, Senator John Edwards was just 120 000 votes from becoming vice president of the United States. Today he was a dozen votes from being sent to jail for up to 30 years.
After nine days of deliberation, a jury in Greensboro, North Carolina, returned a not guilty verdict on one count relating to the misuse of campaign funds and could not reach agreement on five other counts.
Senator Edwards was accused of using secret donations from mega-rich backers Rachel “Bunny” Melon and Fred Baron to try to cover up his affair and child with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter.
On the steps of the courthouse, Edwards admitted that while he did not break the law in taking what the campaign glibly called “Bunny Money,” he did “an awful, awful lot wrong.”
There is almost universal disdain for this man who had an affair while his wife was in brief remission from terminal breast cancer as he was campaigning for the presidency of the United States.
For the thousands of campaign workers and volunteers who believed in Edwards and gave up months, even years of their lives to try and get him elected, there may never be forgiveness.
His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, chose to die alone rather than stay in the house with the man who betrayed her and lied and lied. Heck, Edwards kept me waiting for two hours in a Des Moines car park in 40 degree heat in August 2007 and I hate him.
It’s the hypocrisy that rankles most: here was this Kennedy-handsome senator with a syrupy Southern drawl, humanized by his older, soccer-mom-ish wife, and it turned out he was just another cheat.
Yet Edwards, like Nixon, deserves some understanding.
Nixon was a brilliant man plagued by feelings of resentment, inadequacy, and paranoia that drove him to conspire and commit crimes in the Oval Office and resign in disgrace.
Edwards was a wealthy trial lawyer who became a central-casting senator and presidential candidate after the freakish death of his son Wade, whose car was blown off a cliff by a gust of wind.
It was a search for meaning.
Added to that, he had the weight of a dying wife’s dreams that, when she was gone, he would be in the White House to do good things. According to insiders, Elizabeth Edwards was more an obsessive stage mother than spouse during her final years.
None of which excuses the lies Edwards told and the chances he took pursuing the presidency when he had a career-ending scandal hanging over him, but it reminds us that just as the too-good-to-be-true candidate John Edwards was a fabrication, so is the “least popular man in America” tag he endures today.
Is what Edwards did worse than what an actual sitting president, Bill Clinton, did?
Clinton left office with high approval ratings and is now revered by many, even when that old twinkle returns to his eye and he’s photographed with porn stars — oh Bill!
John Edwards was, by all accounts, a faithful husband until the affair with Hunter. The reason so many people believed his denials was that he wasn’t known to be a Clinton-like skirt-chaser. If anything, he was seen as asexual: a Ken doll with molded plastic rather than functioning genitalia.
Edwards was also a liar long before he was a philanderer.
When Senator John Kerry met with Edwards to tell him he would be his vice presidential nominee, Edwards explained his reasons for being in public office, and it was something he’d never told another human being: it was Wade’s death. Tears welled in Edwards’s eyes as he told Kerry how he’d climbed on to his dead son’s coffin and cried.
Kerry was disturbed, not by the image of Edwards clambering on his dead son’s coffin, but by the claim Edwards had never shared the story with anyone before — Kerry had heard the same story from Edwards two years earlier.
Yet Kerry picked this easy liar to be his running mate.
I don’t doubt Wade’s death was a profound event for Edwards and that many of the issues that motivated him — relieving poverty and homelessness — were genuinely felt as well. Just the trial lawyer in him was never far away: he could say whatever he felt would win over the jury or his audience.
The ambition to be president that drove him for more than a decade is gone. The 58 year old now says his future is working with children living in poverty around the world.
By the time of his death in 1994, Richard Nixon had regained the status of global statesman — being sent on diplomatic missions and being consulted on world affairs by Bill Clinton. The Third Act of John Edwards will be fascinating to see.
1 June 2012