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John Edwards endures two-pronged trial, testing his morals and his actions

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — John Edwards takes mincing, careful steps now, not the long strides of the triumphant. He shuffles to the right, but lawyers deep in conversation block the way, somehow not even noticing him. He pads to the left in his sensible, soft-soled shoes but is trapped by red leather chairs and an L-shaped defense table wedged into a tight corner in an even tighter federal courtroom.

No one clears a path for Edwards anymore. When the jury is excused for breaks, the former senator and erstwhile presidential candidate finds his own route, zigzagging toward the big wooden door set into the wood-paneled wall at the back of a federal courtroom where his shame has been on florid display.

Edwards seeks refuge from a trial at war with itself, a legal contest with a split personality. One trial is a splashy, prurient drama, a tale of lust, deception and boundless ambition; the other is a trial anesthetized by the minutiae of campaign-finance law, a snoozer about “Schedule A” itemized receipts and the “allocation of primary expenditures” for a presidential candidate.

In three weeks of testimony, prosecutors have been intent on marrying the two trials. They’ve presented evidence that the flashy details — the private jets and fancy houses used in the coverup of Edwards’s extramarital affair with the videographer Rielle Hunter and their love child, born in February 2008 — a month after he dropped out of the presidential race — were paid for with money that violated the much more yawn-inducing campaign-finance rules. Defense attorneys, who will begin calling witnesses Monday, have been intent on separating the trials, focusing the jury’s attention on the dull stuff while conceding almost all the rest.

He ‘lied and lied and lied’

At times, Edwards’s famed defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, appears bent on setting some kind of record for calling his own client a liar, seldom missing an opportunity to get witnesses to confirm the former senator’s mendacity. “Yes, Mr. Edwards is making 18,267 false and exculpatory statements,” Lowell said during a hearing last week with federal judge Catherine Eagles. “No one is going to deny that Mr. Edwards lied and lied and lied and lied.”

But Lowell is constructing a narrative about a man who lied for all the right reasons: primarily to spare his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, from more heartache while she battled the cancer that eventually claimed her life. And prosecutors are countering with the notion that Edwards lied because his indiscretions would have ruined his political career.

The 58-year-old Edwards watches it all with a weary glumness in an art-deco-style courthouse in Greensboro, a city of more than a quarter-million set among the rolling hills of North Carolina’s north-central Piedmont region. The skin on his face is looser than in days gone by when he was dismissed by some as a slick-talking pretty boy. Sitting at the defense table, he unlooses long, leonine yawns without bothering to cover his mouth, as if he were in the room alone. When he’s not taking notes on a legal pad, he steeples his forefingers against his lips, then does the same with his pinkie fingers. Then repeats the pattern. Forefingers, pinkies. Forefingers, pinkies. Or he taps his left ring finger against the table — though there’s no ring on it anymore.

When he rises, the man who once worked a rope line with a toothy grin, avoids eye contact, not only averting his gaze from the reporters who pack a cramped space that accommodates barely 70 spectators but also the assorted retirees who line up for hours to get in. The only person other than his lawyers who regularly catches his gaze is his daughter Cate Edwards, a 30-year-old who resembles her mother more than her father and occupies a reserved front-row seat where someone has propped two cushions to make her comfortable. During the testimony, she often appears as detached as her father, twirling strands of her long, dark hair through her fingers while staring into space. In the seats to her right and left, a kind of Greek chorus of opportunistic legal experts has assembled, each offering instant break-time analysis in front of the satellite trucks lined up along the curb outside the courthouse.

Many key players MIA

John Edwards’s fuguelike presence as the central character in what has become an increasingly tawdry drama is balanced against the conspicuous absence of so many of the supporting characters. Prosecutors passed on calling Hunter, who has a reputation for unfiltered commentary, and defense attorneys are generally expected to follow suit. Cancer took Edwards’s wife in December 2010, and the disease also took his friend Fred Baron, the wealthy Texas lawyer who spent more than $200,000 to hide Hunter before he died in October 2008. Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the 101-year-old heiress who kicked in $725,000 of “Bunny money” for the coverup, is also not present, considered too old to take the stand.

Prosecutors say Edwards should have reported the Mellon and Baron money as campaign contributions. They’ve shown a handwritten note in which Mellon says she’ll pay for campaign-related expenses as “a way to help our friends without government restrictions.” And they argue that the payments made by Mellon and Baron would have far exceeded the $2,300-per-election contribution limit. An official from the Federal Election Commission, Patricia Young, testified in a dull monotone about the rules governing campaign filings, leading prosecutors through a quicksand bog of regulations at the heart of the government case. After days of hearing about the flashier aspects of the case, it was no surprise that some jurors seemed to lose interest when prosecutors were asking questions such as, “Is there a schedule or attachment that goes with these itemized receipts?”

Former aide’s testimony

The task of defining Edwards fell to a cavalcade of former aides and onetime friends who have constructed an image of a man more venal, deluded and conniving than any previous portrayal of him. In the testimony, he comes off as an egotist who schemed to trade his endorsement in the presidential race for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court or as attorney general. None is more important to the prosecution than Andrew Young, the assistant so slavishly devoted to Edwards that he agreed to publicly claim paternity of Hunter’s baby in hopes of preserving his boss’s chances of joining the Democratic ticket as a vice presidential nominee. In Young’s telling, Edwards appears as an ingrate and a philanderer, a user of people, and a man who could not be trusted to live up to his promises.

Young and his wife, Cheri, jetted around the country with Hunter in private planes provided by Baron, and lived with her in a house rented with Baron’s money. They bought her a BMW with Baron’s money, too — all to keep her quiet — and they arranged for clandestine trips so that Edwards and Hunter could be together. Contrary to defense claims that Edwards did not know the details of the arrangements, he knew everything, Young said, but the former senator was so intent on preserving his political prospects that he couldn’t be bothered to return Young’s calls.

When they would meet, the conversations could be explosive: a screaming match at the River Inn in Georgetown when Edwards was angling to be the vice presidential pick, a spooky car ride down lonely rural roads in a Chevy Tahoe that Edwards borrowed because he said his wife had taken his car keys. Edwards was “sweating and nervous” even though the air conditioner was blasting and “talked about how his life was hell right then, that he would sleep in some part of his house and that Mrs. Edwards would come in and start screaming at him,” Young testified.

Edwards, so adept at charming voters and contributors, tried to placate Young, saying he “missed hanging out” with him. But when Edwards told him that he couldn’t persuade Mellon to fund a new foundation that would employ Young, the conversation turned volatile. Young threatened to expose the affair, and Edwards seethed, “You can’t hurt me.” It was the last time they spoke.

Over months, as the deception was unraveling, Edwards was tinkering with a statement confessing his affair. It was being written by Wendy Button, a speechwriter who had once been brought to tears by Edwards’s commitment to reduce poverty. Her statement was never issued, even though it was circulated among Edwards’s friends and acquaintances, including the actor Sean Penn.

Button is working on a book now, a “literary memoir” based, in part, on her experiences with Edwards, a man who lied to her as much as he lied to everyone else. She said Young, who published his own book, helped put her in contact with the super-agent Ari Emanuel, who is the brother of Chicago mayor and former Obama administration chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and with Aaron Sorkin, the high-powered creator of television’s “The West Wing.”

Her former boss sat just a few feet away as she spoke. In political circles, it’s common to use an honorific, such as senator or congressman, even long after a person has left office. It’s a way of showing respect for the so-called distinguished gentlemen who serve their country in office. Button, though, just called him John.

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