John Edwards’s potential left unfulfilled

Mary Elizabeth Anania — the woman who would become famous as Elizabeth Edwards — saw it. North Carolina voters saw it. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) saw it.

Potential.

The man born Johnny Reid Edwards had it. Great gobs of potential.

John Edwards could have been a great husband, could have been an enduring statesman, could have been an occupant of the second-highest office in the land, could have been president. So thought the people who believed in him. “The sky was the limit,” says James Andrews, North Carolina AFL-CIO president and an early political supporter.

Instead, on Friday, America witnessed the latest distasteful episode in what has become the long, slow and torturous fall from grace of a political comet whose rise was anything but long and slow. Instead of having the courage to face his federal indictment at the Hiram H. Ward Federal Building in Winston-Salem, N.C., alone, Edwards, 57, stepped to a microphone to plead for mercy with his daughter, Cate, by his side. The man who destroyed his family — the smooth-talking seducer of women, voters and juries — couldn’t resist using his flesh and blood as a prop. Whether Cate, 29, wanted to be there or not, Edwards should have had the sense, the maturity and the dignity not to expose her to such an unseemly glare. But, for a man who once showed such promise, he has shown little of those qualities in the past three years.

Edwards uttered just 59 words. “Sorry” was not among them. He seemed to want listeners to feel “his” pain as much as to comprehend his supposed contrition: “I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused others,” he said, furrowing his brow and wearing a dark, solemn suit. It’s hard to conceive of many people anguished over Edwards being condemned to a life of regret.

The charges against him are serious: Edwards is accused of helping funnel “Bunny Money” — wads of cash coaxed from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon — to his mistress in order to cover up his illicit affair, which produced a child while the Democratic politician chased dreams of running the country. Even before the indictment, Edwards’s lawyer, Gregory Craig, a former top adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama, was pleading his case, saying, “John Edwards has done wrong in his life, and he knows it better than anyone — but he did not break the law.”

After pleading not guilty Friday, Edwards parsed it further, adding that he “never, ever thought” he was breaking the law. “I take full responsibility for having done wrong.”

Regardless of the outcome of Edwards’s legal case, it’s clear that what could have been an extraordinary American success story has been irrevocably undone — all that potential left unfulfilled.

Spiral of the Great Man

When the Great Man falls, the temptation is to ascribe Shakespearean qualities to his descent. But Edwards provided little that could have appealed to the Bard. His potential was squandered in the tawdriest of ways: sex, lies and, yes, videotapes.

To borrow a term from the law — the profession that launched Edwards — it can be stipulated that he cheated on his cancer-stricken wife. And lied about it. He fathered a child with his mistress. And he lied about that, too. The possibility that he might have misused campaign funds to further his serial deceits threatens to deepen his self-inflicted wounds. But it also calls into question a political system in which money seems to flow far too easily and with far too little accountability.

The narrative Edwards so skillfully constructed in his Senate campaign and, later, in his quest for the White House wasn’t built to end this way. He was the embodiment of the American dream and a loving family man, “telegenic” and “articulate,” or so profiles tended to say. The son of a mill worker in Robbins, N.C. — a fact he would repeat so often that the image rose to the level of caricature. A high school football player. The boy who studied hard and married his college sweetheart. The grieving father, whose teenage son died in a tragic car wreck. The successful trial lawyer standing up for the poor and mistreated.

“I have never seen a lawyer handle a jury better than John did,” says Kenneth Broun, a University of North Carolina law professor and former mayor of Chapel Hill. Broun, a political supporter who was closer to Elizabeth Edwards than to her husband, served as judge in a medical malpractice case that John Edwards argued. Broun was struck by how the young lawyer wooed the jury and how he “was able to identify with them and get them to identify with him.”

Perhaps Edwards’s defense team is counting on that magic touch, that ability to connect, should his campaign finance case go to trial. But it’s worth considering that Edwards was seducing juries long before the country learned of the seductions involving Rielle Hunter, a videographer and the mother of his child out of wedlock.

Andrews, the North Carolina AFL-CIO head, was so taken with Edwards that he and his colleagues chose to back him in his 1998 U.S. Senate race over other candidates whom they knew much better.

“He will go to Washington as clean as a hound’s tooth and without a string on him,” then-North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. told reporters trailing the upstart’s self-financed campaign. Edwards would go on to unseat an incumbent Republican, Lauch Faircloth.

Later, Edwards’s AFL-CIO supporters would push the union’s national leadership to back him for president. Edwards’s rise coincided with a growing sentiment among Democrats that they needed another Clinton, a charismatic white Southerner, to succeed at the national level. And Edwards, with small-town bona fides, a honeyed Southern voice and that perfect hair seemed eager to accept the role.

“I was not surprised when he decided to run for the highest office in the land,” Andrews says. “In the early days, I absolutely thought this guy certainly has the potential skills to end up in the Oval Office.”

What Andrews is left with is sadness. “I still love John . . . but I’m disappointed in him,” he says.

Stirring words

A broad swath of Americans got to know Edwards when he was arguing on Clinton’s behalf during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And even more learned about him when he ran for president, and then became Kerry’s running mate, in the 2004 presidential race.

Then, he was a mountain of potential, a fresh face. When he sought the presidency himself for a second time in 2008, he gave a sense of how he could convert that potential into impact. It was Edwards, more than the other candidates, who early on made health care a central focus. It’s now difficult to imagine that the focused and, at times, effective campaigner was surreptitiously destroying his career with his then-hidden infidelities. If not for his personal implosion, one could imagine Edwards receiving some measure of credit for spurring what became Obama’s signature legislative triumph.

Four years earlier, Edwards had stirred listeners with his concept of “the two Americas: the America of the privileged and the wealthy, and the America of those who live from paycheck to paycheck.”

He started his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention by recognizing a few people in the audience. First, there was Elizabeth. “I am a lucky man to have the love of my life at my side,” he told the audience. Then, his parents. “You taught me the values that I carry in my heart: faith, family, responsibility, opportunity for everyone.”

Somewhere between that sterling moment and his great fall, Edwards lost his way, becoming fodder for the National Enquirer. He seemed to have forgotten something elemental, something he professed in a 1998 Senate race ad to have discovered back in Robbins.

Might he have never really understood it after all?

“What I learned,” he said, looking into the camera, the picture of sincerity, “was to treat people right and take responsibility for your actions.”

Now, it seems, Edwards’s lawyers may argue that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that his mistress got were all part of some larger effort to hide his affair from his wife as she fought the cancer that eventually took her life. A jury may decide whether that money qualifies as campaign cash and if the transfers amount to a crime. Regardless, though, paying off a mistress to keep an affair secret sure doesn’t sound like the act of a man who believes in taking responsibility for his actions.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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