John Edwards returns to a federal courthouse during the ninth day of jury deliberations in his trial on charges of campaign corruption in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, May 31, 2012. Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations over nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors used to help hide the Democrat's pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.
Confession: I used to root for John Edwards. He comes from my neck of the woods in North Carolina, economically and culturally speaking, and I know his type. He’s the charmed golden boy everybody knows is destined to make it big in a way that nobody out of Robbins, North Carolina, ever has. When he begins to fulfill that prophecy, becoming a filthy-rich trial attorney, everybody thinks he’s still just too special to stop there, and he tends to agree. So he decides to go for it, as Edwards did when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1998. It was his first campaign, period, and it showed. I was then editing an alt-weekly in North Carolina, and we covered Edwards’ long-shot bid extensively—starting with his first-ever campaign event, at the Raleigh Women’s Club. As I remember, Edwards had absolutely nothing to say; he was a handsome grin in a good suit. We endorsed his more progressive opponent in the primary. (Oh, well.)
What drew me to Edwards came later. It wasn’t so much the messenger—though the senator’s working-class background did make one suspect that there was at least a dollop of sincerity in Edwards’ “Two Americas” preachments. More than anything, it was the populist message—largely conceptual in 2004 and sharper and more outraged, like the country, in 2007 and 2008. For those of us who stubbornly believe that populism is liberalism’s only winning message, Edwards looked like he might be a viable champion. Sadly, too few white people would ever lend an ear to Jesse Jackson’s egalitarian message. But they just might pay attention to a twangy white guy from Robbins, N.C., who wants to stick it to the greedy rich people.
But then there was Edwards himself. I covered him irregularly in 2004 and 2008, but the most telling encounter was off the campaign trail in early 2005, when I wrote a feature for The Nation on Edwards’ then-new poverty project and his political future. I met up with the campaign at a local food kitchen, where Edwards breezed in, dressed to the nines. He skillfully glad-handed and empathized with the volunteers, did a token bit of kitchen work, and then, fairly abruptly, called out, “What’s next?” to his handlers. I’d heard rumbles that Edwards’ ego had inflated while running for vice president. Now I was seeing it.
At the same time, I couldn’t help being impressed with the framework he’d already begun to assemble for his next presidential campaign. He had a story about a bunch of his advisers, friends, and Elizabeth sitting around the house soon after the 2004 defeat. The question was “What should John do next?” and the options seemed virtually limitless. They probed Edwards, he said, to find out what was in his heart. “Poverty,” he said.
However sincere this desire to fight poverty might have been, there’s no question that it was politically convenient: In 2008, Edwards expected to face off against Hillary Clinton, who’d be running from the centrist wing of the party. Edwards had to shimmy leftward. Making himself the champion of one of the two Americas—the worse-off part—would propel him neatly forward.
In retrospect, it’s impossible not to be cynical about practically everything the man ever did or said—Edwards has made it all too easy. But at the time, I wasn’t alone in hearing from Edwards the message I’d always hoped to hear from a viable Democratic candidate. The man was trying to make poverty a central issue of a presidential campaign, for the first time since, what, 1964?
The doubts were always about the messenger. Was he for real with his concern for the downtrodden? Was he savvy enough, smart enough, to go to Washington as president and turn the rhetoric into policy? Sometimes he could convince you. Other times—especially if you saw him off-stage—it was hard to believe that concerns about poverty were really his driving force. They were the engine, it seemed; Edwards’ ambitions, and those of the people who nudged him into politics (including his wife), were at the wheel.
Even with a stronger, fresher competitor—Obama—elbowing him out of the spotlight when he ran in 2007, Edwards still had a chance to win Iowa on primary night. It’s hard to know whether Obama simply outshone him, or whether Edwards’ appeal had dimmed a bit. Probably both. The North Carolinian was no longer the new face, and he no longer projected the same beaming quality of uplift while he pointed to the 21st century’s most important socioeconomic quandary. He still smiled, all right, but there was no sunshine in it. (Now we know why.) His message had grown harder, too; it had an edge. Nothing necessarily wrong with that; voters in 2008 were unusually frustrated and not a little pissed. But something was missing. I chalked it up mostly to the fact that Obama had stolen Edwards’ thunder. But he had grown distant, somehow, and his campaigning—with pretty much the same message I’d heard in 2005—had lost much of its heady joy. When he first ran, Edwards seemed to love the adulation more than he loved connecting with people. A few years later, he seemed to expect the adulation and take it for granted.
Ultimately, you can view the John Edwards story as low farce, which it certainly became once he hooked up with Rielle Hunter, couldn’t quit her, and then couldn’t quit lying about her. But it’s possible—not easy, maybe, but possible—to see elements of tragedy as well.
Edwards’ tragic flaw is hard to pin down: Was it a classic case of Politician’s Ego—that overweening sense of untouchable superiority that makes (male) pols feel bulletproof? Was Edwards manifesting insecurity that stemmed from his humble upbringings—responding to Hunter’s adoration because he needed it so badly? Was he just a louse from the start? (The evidence suggests otherwise, which is part of what makes the whole scandal so mystifying and fascinating at once.)
It’s abundantly clear how most people view Edwards: unforgivably hypocritical and falsely pious, the epitome of a terrible husband and father, and a dirty liar to boot. Even before his stomach-turning trial began, Edwards’ approval rating was a rock-bottom three percent. Seeing those numbers, it was hard not to feel a little sorry for the guy—especially given the more-than-valid questions about the political motivations and validity of his ultimately unsuccessful prosecution. But any such emotions were extinguished on Thursday, after Edwards’ jury hung on five counts and acquitted him on the other.
He came out of the courtroom a free man, looking like a million well-tanned bucks under the North Carolina sun, with his slick suit and his pasted-down hair and his overeager earnestness. Edwards could have stopped at thanking the jury and his attorneys and his family, and slinked away from the scene—far, far from the public eye, for good. Instead, he delivered a carefully crafted, well-rehearsed comeback speech. “I don’t think God’s through with me,” he declared, saying that he wanted to get back to fighting poverty. And then he ensured that he’d be all over the gossip sites the next day by delivering an ode to his daughter by Hunter, “my precious Quinn,” whom he’d never acknowledged in public before.
The whole oration was vintage John Edwards—in other words, deeply perplexing. You didn’t know what to think: Was he sincerely trying to come honest after all those accumulated lies? Or was he (gulp!) trying to begin resetting public opinion of him so he could somehow revive his public career? Or—ye Gods—his political career?
You can’t put it past him. You can imagine Edwards thinking: Hey, if Nixon could do it… It’s what the elephantine egos that become powerful politicians do. Once they’ve had your love, they want it back. They must have it. And some do regain favor after a fall. Bill Clinton, anyone? But Edwards is not Big Bill. The excesses of Clinton’s private life were part and parcel of what some already loved—and others already hated—about him. Edwards’ misdeeds, like Tiger Woods’, wrecked his image because they gave the lie to his public persona. He was supposed to be the loyal husband of an unglamorous wife with cancer, the mill-worker’s son who hadn’t forgotten the regular people, the weatherman-handsome young fellow with a brain, a heart, and a smile. It all seemed too good to be true—and then, slowly but surely, it became clear that it was.