The trial into allegations of campaign finance wrongdoing by former North Carolina senator John Edwards opens today in Greensboro, a sort of final public flogging for a man who twice sought the highest office in the country.
“This is the end for John Edwards in public,” said one former Edwards strategist of the trial. “He is not the type to do a TV show like [Elliot] Spitzer and can’t do anything with voters.”
What Edwards is, ostensibly, charged with is accepting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions from two wealthy donors — cash that was designed to keep his mistress (and the mother of his child) quiet during the presidential campaign.
But, the truth of the matter is that what’s really on trial — at least in the court of public opinion — is Edwards himself, the one-time golden boy of the Democratic party who rose quicker and fell faster than almost anyone in modern politics.
Here’s how the Raleigh News & Observer — an invaluable resource for the trial — put it in a must-read preview of the case:
“On Monday, a modern tragedy – replete with many elements of the Athenian dramas – will take center stage in a wood-paneled courtroom in the Greensboro federal courthouse.”
That about captures it.
This trial — regardless of the outcome — amounts to one last chance for the public to express its disdain for a man who cheated on his terminally ill wife, lied about it, fathered a child out of wedlock, lied about it and is now left searching for some strands of redemption or, at least, forgiveness.
Many people believed deeply in Edwards and felt his series of betrayals personally; they cared about him, which made what he did all the worse. He was supposed to be a different kind of politician but wound up being the same old kind of politician. The trial then amounts to a cathartic moment for many of his one-time fans.
If this is indeed the end, it’s worth looking at the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction narrative that has brought us to this point.
Edwards burst onto the political scene in 1998 when he unseated Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) to claim a rare Democratic federal-level foothold in the South.
He was touted as the second coming of Bill Clinton by many in the party who saw his good looks, sunny outlook and naturalness on the stump as the stuff on which presidents are constructed. (We maintain that Edwards is the most naturally gifted Democratic politician to emerge since Clinton hit the scene in the late 1970s. And, yes, that includes President Obama.)
His first presidential run came six years after he was first elected to the Senate and was, by all accounts, a massive success. He placed second behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in Iowa but was seen as the buzz candidate in the field.
Few were surprised then when Kerry named Edwards his vice presidential running mate or, in the wake of that defeat, when Edwards quickly made clear he was planning a second run for president in 2008.
The seeds of Edwards’ political (and personal) destruction were sewn during the four years in between his presidential bids. At some point during that time, Edwards started to believe all the positive press about himself and began to view himself as above and beyond traditional moral conventions.
A telling indication of that transformation came at at the staff level. Virtually the entirety of his senior campaign staff during the 2004 presidential bid — including campaign manager Nick Baldick — did not return for his 2008 campaign, a sign that Edwards had changed. (Little did we know how much.)
The difference between Edwards 2004 and Edwards 2008 was visible to anyone who spent time covering both campaigns. The candidate had grown more cynical, paranoid and, frankly, darker by the time the second race came around — a sort of Bizarro version of the person so many people had fallen in love with in the early part of last decade.
The collapse of his second presidential campaign paled in comparison to everything that came after it: his wild hopes of negotiating a deal to be Attorney General, his acknowledgment of the Hunter affair and their child, and, most tragically, the death of his wife, Elizabeth.
In light of those events — the vast majority of which were Edwards’ own doing — this trial, which many legal experts have long viewed skeptically, is rightly regarded as a final public indignity.
Edwards only hope is to grin and bear it — taking the public embarrassment one last time in hopes of avoiding jail time and, finally, moving on with his life. How he will do so or what that life might look like remains very much up in the air.