John Edwards, political populist, millionaire personal injury lawyer, former North Carolina senator, the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate in 2004 and would-be presidential candidate in 2008, now has a new role – defending himself against charges of finding really creative ways to make use of contributions meant to pay his barbering bills and other personal expenses during his 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination. Actually, these charges – and the accompanying free-fall from public grace – might never have happened except for the inconvenient fact that this money ended up being used to take care of the problems stemming from Edwards’ marital infidelity and a child born out of wedlock.
A little more than a decade ago, the career of John Edwards seemed to embody the stuff of the near-filmic rise of a crusading man-of-the-people hero. He was the man who took on the rich and the powerful and beat them at their own game; and, who, in the process of fighting for the little guy, rose close to the pinnacle of American politics.
Edwards was raised dirt-poor in the textile mill towns of the South and North Carolina. Then, as an adult, he became a crusading personal injury and medical malpractice claims lawyer. He won high-stakes, very public, very major multimillion-dollar settlements for his maimed and injured clients, and he kept fees below the usual one third of the take, just for good measure. Along the way, Edwards and his law partner earned the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s national award for public service. Personal injury lawyers from all over the US were coming to watch the master annihilate corporate drones. A personal injury lawyer as a crusading public hero – imagine that!
After his only son, Wade, was killed in a freak accident in 1996, Edwards lost the appetite for legal fights and pretty much to heal the wounds, committed himself to politics. In his 1998 campaign to win a senate seat from North Carolina, Edward
championed things like funding a million housing vouchers to support poor people to move into richer, better-off neighbourhoods to give these new residents access to the better schools and services in such residential areas. Arguing this cause, Edwards had explained, “If we truly believe that we are all equal, then we should live together too.” Not the kind of statement that gets establishment bankers and other backers lined up behind him as the preferred candidate of “business as usual”.
He won handily against incumbent GOP senator Faircloth and the photogenic new star was starting to shine brightly. He was even briefly considered by Al Gore as a vice presidential candidate in 2000 election.
By 2004 he was ready for the big stage. After his second place in the Democratic primaries, and on the basis of his poor-kid-makes-really-good storyline, the starchy, rich, windsurfing and Boston Brahmin Senator John Kerry picked Edwards as his vice presidential running mate in his fight against George W Bush. The Kerry campaign thought Edwards’ presumed empathy with Southern, blue-collar, otherwise-Republican-leaning voters would be a real asset and must just make the difference in the election itself. In the general election, however, Kerry lost to Bush, largely in the wake of the Dubya’s successful campaign against the same-sex marriage that put social conservatives solidly behind him, as well as “swift-boat veterans against Kerry” dirt campaign that managed to smear decorated Vietnam war veteran Kerry as coward and present the Vietnam War dodging Bush as a hero.
The day after Edwards’ concession speech in 2004 election, Edwards and his wife Elizabeth announced she had breast cancer. Her spirited fight against the disease gave Edwards’ early positioning for the 2008 nomination a boost and Edwards and his advisors set out a long-term vision to capture the Democratic presidential nomination for 2008. He placed himself as an increasingly visible supporter of a resurgent national populism, although he also signed on to an investment firm that turned out to be heavily invested in those same sub-prime mortgages that became the bane of the national economy by 2008.
Despite an intense personal effort, Edwards failed to gain real traction in the early primaries and caucuses in 2008 against Hillary Clinton or the new kid on the block, Barack Obama. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in their critically acclaimed account of the 2008 campaign, “Race of a Lifetime”, described John Edwards’ increasingly frantic efforts to broker the nomination between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and himself – and Obama apparently even considered offering Edwards the second spot on the ticket, before finally settling on Joe Biden instead.
Meanwhile, however, the media, unusually led by The National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid usually more focused on Elvis’ whereabouts and alien sightings, had gotten its teeth into the story Edwards had fathered a child out of wedlock with Rielle Hunter, a 2004 campaign video documentary maker. In the wake of this story, Edwards’ campaign finally sank below the waters.
After a series of denials stretching over the next two years, including an effort to foist paternity of the child on another campaign aide, Edwards finally admitted to his affair and paternity of the child on 21 January 2010. His by-now-terminally ill spouse then filed for divorce, after years of standing by her man – at least in public. With these developments now in the public arena, some other more dangerous, circling wolves moved in. On 24 May, ABC News and The New York Times broke the story that the feds had wrapped up their investigation into whether Edwards had used nearly $1 million in political donations to keep his affair secret and to support the child’s mother.
On 3 June this year, a North Carolina grand jury indicted Edwards on six felony charges of misusing campaign funds. If convicted, Edwards could get a $1.5 million fine and an all-expenses-paid term of residence of up to 30 years in a federal government facility, but definitely not in the White House. The indictment’s charges allege Edwards took the funds from two donors – one a 100-year old heiress to the Mellon banking fortune – who had offered aid to pay privately for Edwards’ grooming and hair care, in part in response to the heat he had taken over that very expensive cut and trim he had already had in the previous campaign, as well as other expenses important to his candidacy. As his benefactor wrote in explaining herself, “It is a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”
The feds argue that this money was ultimately diverted to pay for hotel rooms and childcare, or, in plain language, hush money. The feds are saying these payments were really disguised campaign contributions spent on some decidedly non-campaign expenditures. Prosecutors say this was illegal because Edwards should have reported the contributions on his campaign finance filings, and because it exceeded the $2,300-a-person limit on contributions.
Assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer, head of the justice department’s criminal division told reporters, “As this indictment shows, we will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws.”
The indictment itself argues, “A centrepiece of Edwards’ candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man. Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and the pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by, among other things, undermining Edwards’ presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy.”
Edwards, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty and was released without bail, on condition he surrender his passport and not leave the US. Commenting on his charges, Edwards told the press, “There’s no question that I’ve done wrong. And I take full responsibility for having done wrong. And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I’ve caused to others, but I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law.”
Edwards’ defence attorney, Gregory Craig will be asserting the feds’ case is an unprecedented use of campaign funding rules and laws to hunt down a former candidate who had, well, personal issues. In effect, Craig will be arguing that Edwards’ defence is that “what John did was pretty sleazy and maybe he’s a real cad, but it wasn’t exactly illegal, just kinda nasty”. The real problem is that John Edwards is now firmly in the clutches of having been unmasked as a very different man than his carefully cultivated public image had been tailored to portray.
His newest and biggest problem leads back to the latent power of that earlier incident when Edwards had that $400 haircut in a chartered airplane parked on an airport tarmac in between campaign stops in 2007. This was not the mark of a man of the people. Earlier seen as an unfortunate slip from his otherwise cogent narrative, it now seems unmasked as the herald of a larger, much deeper personal flaw: The man who can pay $400 for a trim and blow wave would have relationships outside of marriage, would take money from old friends, and would use that money to cover everything up…. And so it goes.
Watch: John Edwards: I feel pretty.
That politics and power can act as a powerful aphrodisiac between leaders and followers is hardly news – and not just in South Africa, France or Japan – arguably seems to be taken as a normal part of life as it is lived. (And this doesn’t even begin to speak to places where polygamy is a social norm.)
Note, for example, in America where polygamy is not legal, the putative return of the thrice-married Newt Gingrich as a potential candidate for president, despite his admitted affairs while still married, now seems to be just one more interesting element of his personal odyssey. Then, of course, there was the mayor of Washington, DC, Marion Barry, who even served time for drug possession while in the company of a prostitute who just happened to be a police snitch and who still managed to win an election after his detour to the pokey.
Then, too, there is the supreme example of Bill Clinton who never quite escaped from serial accusations of affairs even if his defenders tried to minimise the damage by labelling his partners “trailer trash”. Ultimately Clinton managed to survive and thrive politically. Novelist Robert Penn Warren captured the political benefits that can flow come from the interplay between sex and power in his superb political novel of the 1940s, “All the King’s Men,” a story that still reads like a playbook of the interplay between sex, politics, money and power.
But this is no new phenomenon. At the end of the 19th century, Grover Cleveland reached the White House even as his opponents hired small boys to impersonate his acknowledged illegitimate son. They had the children pitch up at Cleveland’s campaign rallies where hecklers would chant: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House haw haw haw!”
Rather than just the straying from his marriage vows, Edwards’ real problem appears to have been a near-fatal collision between political and personal truth and hypocrisy. Even if Edwards manages to dodge this bullet and beat the charges, the experts all acknowledge his political future is finished.
But, contrary to F Scott Fitzgerald who told us there were no second acts in American life, if Edwards beats this rap, watch for his four-step public rehabilitation. First, there will be an act of contrition as he works tirelessly with a carefully selected anti-poverty programme. Then there will be a “tell-all” book. That will be followed by a run at the financially lucrative motivational speaker lecture trail. Then, finally, it will be on to the nirvana of a commentary and talk show programme on MS-NBC. The man can talk, after all. Heck, even convicted White House counsel John Dean of Watergate scandal fame is now teaching legal ethics for the American Bar Association’s continuing legal education programme. And so, maybe it was Marx (Karl, not Groucho) who really did get it right: History, first time around it comes as tragedy, the second time it arrives as farce. DM
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Photo: Former U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful and former U.S. Senator John Edwards departs the U.S. District Court with his daughter Cate (L-rear) after pleading not guilty to six federal charges in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, June 3, 2011. Edwards was indicted Friday for using nearly $1 million in illegal campaign funds to help cover up an extramarital affair during his White House bid. In a fall from grace for a man once expected to go far in American politics, Edwards, 57, was charged with six counts, including conspiracy, illegal campaign contributions and making false statements, according to the federal indictment. REUTERS/Davis Turner
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