For John Edwards, isolation is a symbol of his downfall

April 11, 2012

Last year, by then under criminal indictment, John Edwards sat with a longtime friend in the 10,000-square-foot house that is the centerpiece of his 102-acre Chapel Hill estate. The friend, a New Jersey lawyer named Glenn Bergenfield who had attended law school with Edwards, was one of the select few members of a diminishing club: those whom the disgraced Edwards wanted to see, and those who wanted to see him.

Sometimes Bergenfield just listened. Edwards always talked about his children and often of his late wife, Elizabeth, and, after a while, he usually got around to the matter of Rielle Hunter, the woman with whom he had an affair and a child. These were the characters of the soap opera that Edwards’s life had descended to — the Would-Be President, the Other Woman, the Love Child, the Courageous Wife, the Dying Wife — but here in this large, lonesome house, the conversations were intimate and introspective. Edwards sounded utterly befuddled by what he had done, as if he were talking about a stranger.

His confusion extended to the latest chapter in the drama — criminal charges alleging that in an effort to conceal his affair during the height of his 2008 presidential campaign, he illegally arranged for secret contributions of about $1 million to take care of Hunter’s needs as she prepared to give birth to their daughter, Quinn. Sometimes his painful bouts of self-analysis turned to frustration over his belief that he had been singled out among a long list of philandering politicians, living and dead, for pariah status.

“He knows he made mistakes,” Bergenfield says on the eve of Edwards’s trial, which is set to begin Thursday with jury selection. “But John thinks that the treatment of him is so unflinchingly horrible and that what he did is not so different from what others did — JFK, Clinton, the whole rogues’ gallery. We’ve had this conversation about his situation, and I remember he did compare it to Clinton. He said, ‘I did a horrendous thing, but I don’t know why I’m getting such an unforgiving treatment when you think of what other people have done.’ ”

The more Edwards talked, the more Bergenfield would do his best to buoy him. He also wanted to lend his support to the two Edwards children living at home, Emma Claire, 13, and Jack, 11. He is godfather to Jack, as he was to Edwards’s oldest son, Wade, who died in a car accident in 1996 and is buried alongside his mother.

At times, though, Bergenfield found himself scanning the house, whose every feature owes its existence to the dreams of Elizabeth, with whom Bergenfield’s friendship had been even tighter than with Edwards, so close that he had delivered a eulogy at her funeral. “Every floor tile, every post in it, it’s her,” Bergenfield says, grateful for how the house serves as a bond to his departed friend.

But what must it be for Edwards, he wonders. This is where Edwards spends most of his time now, preparing for his trial. “Being in the house is a reminder of Elizabeth for John,” he says. “And that means the other things, too. I think it’s hard for him to be there without thinking about what a horrible mess this has all been, about all his mistakes and regrets. He has said as much to me.”

Houses aren’t haunted; men haunt themselves, Bergenfield knows. “There’s genuine sadness there that has nothing to do with his trial,” he says.

A road less traveled

By design, the house sits back in the thick Carolina woods, too far away to be glimpsed through the trees by motorists on Old Greensboro Road, the public thoroughfare running by the estate. Once, when Edwards was a White House contender, there was some cachet to all this, an air of regal privilege and security befitting a possible president in the making.

A barely noticeable private road takes the rare visitor to his house. Barack Obama traveled it once to ask for his support after the Edwards campaign died. It is the road, too, where Edwards’s meteoric public ascension met up with his humiliating private disaster. On occasion, reporters were invited up the road, including ABC’s Bob Woodruff, to whom Edwards admitted the affair with Hunter but lied in denying that he was Quinn’s father.

It is the same road that Edwards drove when leaving the estate about the time Elizabeth separated from him, and the one upon which he returned, in late 2010, as she was dying of cancer and their friends hurried to say their goodbyes. It is the road he starts out on nowadays to drive Emma Claire and Jack to school and games, and the one he cruises down when occasionally accompanying his attorneys on the hour-long drive to the federal courthouse in Greensboro for pretrial motions.

Rural and lightly populated, the area is a good place to get lost. Not much else is around except a low-slung garage directly across the road where a sign advertises used tires for sale and a solitary man is busy late one afternoon fitting tires on an old Chevy.

No one close to Edwards disputes the obvious: The unrelenting quiet is an indication of just how far he has fallen. Especially around Chapel Hill and the Edwardses’ former home in nearby Raleigh, several longtime friends privately say that they want nothing to do with him; that they felt personally betrayed by his persistent lies during the period when he desperately sought to cover up his affair.

The antipathy toward him around these parts shows no signs of abating. He spends considerably less time in popular Chapel Hill haunts that once — in his days as a stunningly successful trial lawyer and overnight political star — accorded him golden-boy status. At Spanky’s restaurant, near the University of North Carolina Law School (where he and Elizabeth met in a class), his portrait has been removed from the wall, replaced by one of Elizabeth. Three years ago, with the scandal at its height, he ate lunch with an elderly couple at crowded Foster’s Market, a popular cafe in town where he looked at ease in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. As he left, patrons hissed at him. “It was more than audible; it was loud,” a witness recalls. “He kept walking toward the door as if he didn’t hear or see anything.”

The plummeting of his star has taken its toll. He has made himself scarce around his preferred restaurants and bars, those favored by Chapel Hill’s elite. He finds less likely refuges now. Over the past couple of years, he has sometimes dropped in at the Wooden Nickel, a working-man’s bar in nearby sleepy Hillsborough, where the posted rules include not drinking while leaning on the cars outside.

Friends think the animosity and pressure contributed to his recent health scare — a heart ailment that necessitated treatment and a short delay in the trial. Edwards’s doctor emphasized in a note to the court that his 58-year-old patient needs to avoid stress. “But he’s doing better,” Bergenfield says.

Edwards’s legal team is led by well-known Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell, who assumed control of the defense after a series of other lawyers, including Obama’s former White House counsel Gregory Craig, left the case amid rumors that they were unable to secure a plea deal to Edwards’s liking.

In a view that reflects the perspective of most people who know Edwards well, including former legal associates and estranged friends who now loathe him, Bergenfield says: “The case is ridiculous. . . . It’s exploiting personal mistakes he’s made.”

At a hearing in Greensboro on the last Monday in March, the defense reminded observers of a key component of its strategy: destroy the credibility of Andrew Young, Edwards’s former personal aide, who is slated to be a key prosecution witness.

It was a largely uneventful morning. Edwards had chosen to stay home, and the courtroom crowd was sparse. Afterward, someone asked another defense attorney, Alan Duncan, about the state of mind of the man on Old Greensboro Road. Duncan inhaled and said tersely, “He’s taking care of his children. Thanks, y’all.”

Hard to ‘make sense of it’

Edwards’s mood, friends note, brightens with the presence of family members and loyalists. Last year, he spent considerable time with his oldest child, Cate, a Harvard Law School graduate, as her wedding approached. When Bergenfield visited, the two men brought Emma Claire and Jack to a packed restaurant for hamburgers. They had to wait for a table. Other diners stared. “It was fine,” Bergenfield recalls, adding: “I’ve personally never seen a problem.” He ponders whether he has noticed any difference in the way strangers act now around his friend. “He’s not treated special or different,” Bergenfield says. “It’s fine.”

Edwards has tried to help Jack’s baseball teams in recent years by doing some coaching, Bergenfield says. And last spring, the two men went to watch Emma Claire play in a softball game at the Durham Academy, where she attends school. “John was just another parent watching the game,” Bergenfield recounts. “Afterward, he was just standing there by himself. Emma grabbed his arm and said, ‘Dad, we gotta get in line and sign up.’ It was like juice-box sign-up or something; every parent had to bring juice boxes. John just got in line.”

Bergenfield doesn’t know everything, he says. He acknowledges that Edwards maintains contact with Hunter for the sake of seeing their daughter, among other things — but adds that he knows little else beyond the fact that she lives a couple of hours away, in North Carolina. Edwards “wants to always be there for Quinn,” he says. “Anything beyond that, I’d be guessing.”

Asked what accounted for the depth of his friend’s fall, Bergenfield says he has yet to understand it. “Within our greatest traits are the seeds of our undoing at times,” he says. “There is a connection between John’s great gifts and the great problems he has now. He thought that he could do anything, and some of these things were selfish things. . . . It’s hard even for John to make sense of it.”

‘Too far, too fast’

To others who have long known Edwards or worked with him, nothing was sudden about his downfall. Several trace their disappointment with him as far back as the aftermath of his winning 1998 Senate campaign. Soon, they concluded that he was on a climb that would not include them. In time, the Hunter scandal merely felt to them like the zenith of this trajectory.

“Some people who knew him told me, ‘You don’t know him well enough, but by then I had drunk the Kool-Aid . . . ,” remembers Gary Pearce, a longtime North Carolina Democratic consultant and a strategist in Edwards’s ’98 Senate campaign who eventually had a falling out with Edwards and Elizabeth. “He went too far, too fast. He forgot about North Carolina. . . . We saw each other after the campaign. It was like a month after he’d entered office. He asked, ‘How do I get on Al Gore’s short list for vice president [in 2000]?’ He had a lot of disappointed supporters here who felt their interests had been totally ignored. They felt betrayed.”

A key Edwards backer from Raleigh remembers watching when Edwards appeared on ABC in 2008 to tell Woodruff that Hunter’s child could not be his. “I just knew by how he said it that he was lying, and that he thought he was going to get away with it,” the supporter remembers. “I was furious with him and myself. . . . You don’t get to forgive yourself for being duped like that. Redemption now would be a tough row for him to hoe.”

But the man adds that he has acute scandal fatigue. “Does a sorry person get convicted just because he’s a sorry person?” he asks, in explaining why he doesn’t want Edwards to be convicted.

Supportive of that kind of reasoning, Bergenfield nonetheless has heard the counter argument: that the case is about far more than a coverup of infidelities; that, among other things, Edwards’s maneuvering left him open to manipulation and bribery by illicit contributors had he reached the White House. Even some of Edwards’s sympathizers worry what might happen if jurors reduce the complex legal issues to a single moral question. “If they’re looking for someone to pay for this mess, you never know,” one says.

Bergenfield’s hope is that his friend can somehow find his way out of his house and back to what he did best before fame, and infamy, found him. “He’s an extraordinarily talented lawyer, and I believe his empathy has always been genuine,” he says. “The picture of him is mixed. He has a big heart — with flaws — but that heart is there. . . . He just wants do something worthwhile.”

Bergenfield paused, trying to picture his friend back in a courtroom, arguing a case. Something unsettling occurred to him.

“I’m just fearful that it might be impossible for people to look at him and see the skilled lawyer anymore,” he says slowly. “They might only think of the $400 haircuts and. . . the mistakes in his marriage, and not see anything else. . . . So there’s uncertainty. The truth is nobody knows what is going to happen to him.”

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