John Edwards campaigned for president with a tale of “two Americas,” one rich, one poor, and vowed to bridge them.
It turns out there also were two John Edwards.
A man of Southern mill-town roots whose talent as a trial lawyer made him a millionaire, and then a politician with a gift for wooing voters far from home, has placed his public reputation and future in the hands of a jury.
The judgment on the Democratic Party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee and former one-term senator from North Carolina will determine whether Johnny Reid Edwards, 58, merely shamed himself and his family in a sexual affair hidden from his dying wife with the help of rich benefactors, or broke the law.
“I don’t think there is a lot of thirst for him going to jail, and that’s what it comes down to,” said J.F. “Ferrel” Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Is he a sinner? Yes. Is he a criminal? Maybe not.”
The federal government’s case centered on more than $700,000 in “Bunny Money” that an heiress, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, now 101 years old, paid for the expenses of Edwards’s mistress. The government argued that Edwards violated campaign-financing laws in the undisclosed expenses of Rielle Hunter, who bore their child, Frances Quinn Hunter, in 2008.
The jury in Greensboro, North Carolina, began deliberations yesterday and recessed for the weekend without a verdict. It’s expected to resume its work May 21.
Edwards, with an oratorical flair and bootstraps success story, won election to the U.S. Senate in 1998, at age 45, defeating Republican Lauch Faircloth. Vice President Al Gore considered Edwards for the No. 2 spot when he ran for president in 2000.
“Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one,” Edwards said in Iowa in December 2003, during his first run for the presidency, with a line that became his campaign’s signature. “One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward, one favored, the other forgotten, one privileged, the other burdened.”
Edwards could have won his party’s presidential nomination in 2004. He was surging in public opinion polls on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. With another week of campaigning there, analysts agreed, he could have upstaged Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and ridden that momentum to the nomination. By campaign’s end, Kerry selected Edwards as his running mate.
Edwards, who fashioned himself in the Bill Clinton mold of a Southern, centrist Democrat, was making his second bid for the party’s nomination in 2008 when his sexual liaison with Hunter, who had been hired as a campaign videographer, was exposed. His wife, Elizabeth, battling breast cancer, has since died.
In the spotlight of a widely covered trial revealing the extent to which a candidate went to conceal an infidelity that could have ruined his election campaign, the cinematic nature of his political rise has been obscured.
The courtroom victories of the millworker’s son included a $25 million settlement with a manufacturer after a little girl was severely injured by a swimming pool drain. It was, at the time, North Carolina’s largest personal injury verdict. He recounted that story in detail in his book, “Four Trials.”
There was irony, too, in a candidate making a populist appeal to two Americas and building a 28,000-square-foot home at the time.
In his campaigns, Edwards drew on a Southern tradition of story-telling infused with his own understanding of success and tragedy. His son, Wade, had died at 16 in an automobile accident in 1996 on the way to the family beach house near North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
He also confided something about that story with Kerry, which, in turn, gave the Democratic nominee qualms about him.
Bob Shrum, an adviser to Kerry’s campaign, recounted in a 2007 book that Edwards told Kerry he was going to say something he hadn’t told anyone else: After his son died, “he climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, laid there and hugged his body, and promised that he’d do all he could to make life better for people, to live up to Wade’s ideals of service.”
Kerry, Shrum wrote, told him that Edwards had recounted the same story, in almost the same words, a year or two before.
The personal story of a self-made son of the South resonated with Democrats taking their first measure of the man. His television ads in Wisconsin showed pictures of the little pink house in Seneca, South Carolina, where he lived as a boy. Everywhere he went, he spoke in the impassioned turns of phrase of a polished trial lawyer about the divide between the two Americas of haves and have-nots, and he pledged to unite them.
‘A Great Family’
“He comes from a great family like many of us in the South, whose families were not affluent,” Roy Barnes, a former governor of Georgia, said during the 2004 campaign. “He’s got the intelligence, the grit, as we call it in the South, to get elected.” He added: “But the reason I’m for John Edwards is, he can beat George Bush.”
Kerry and Edwards lost to incumbents Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the 2004 election.
That didn’t stop Edwards. He set out again for his party’s nomination in 2008, with Elizabeth by his side delivering news of her recurring cancer and determination to fight for her life while her husband fought for the nomination. The campaign ended in tabloid revelations of his secret mistress and a campaign aide claiming paternity.
Even then, Edwards was holding out an endorsement for his party’s nominee in a bid to leverage a job in the next administration, perhaps attorney general.
“I went from being a senator, a young senator, to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and become a national public figure,” Edwards said on ABC News “Nightline” on Aug. 8, 2008. “All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences.”
Edwards was indicted in June on charges of using illegal campaign donations to conceal his mistress from voters.
In the trial on the charges that Edwards accepted $925,000 to cover up the affair and save his campaign, jurors have learned of not only the Bunny Money, but also $28,000 that Edwards supporter Fred Baron, a Texas lawyer now deceased, spent on a BMW automobile for Hunter, who maintained a costly lifestyle in hiding.
Andrew Young, a former Edwards campaign aide and father of three who initially agreed to claim Hunter’s child as his own, has testified about accepting more than $900,000 from two wealthy donors to cover Hunter’s expenses.
Members of his own party have abandoned him, and Representative Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, says he is “not surprised” by Edwards’ downfall.
“I’ve thought for a long time that the former senator has put himself in this position because of arrogance,” Jones said. “I thought from the first time that I saw him on TV that he was a slick attorney.”
Whatever the verdict of the jury, Edwards faces another judgment following a trial bannered on cable news.
“I don’t think there’s much likelihood of a political redemption,” the University of North Carolina’s Guillory said.
“Part of this is the old story that the cover-up, in some ways, is worse than the crime.” He added, “I think people understand that if you’re going to have an affair you’re going to try to cover it up. That’s the nature of the enterprise. Where is the line with Edwards? There was so much lying.”
Said Guillory, “I don’t know anyone in North Carolina who would rally to an Edwards campaign again. It’s been a disillusioning experience here.”
Edwards’s hopes of any political revival are slim, said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“It’s over,” West said in an interview. “Even if he is exonerated legally, he is not politically or morally.”
Still, Edwards may seek to remain in public life. “He is somebody who has been in public service for a long time and views himself as a change agent,” West said. “So it’s hard to see that he would be satisfied retreating to a life of anonymity.”