John Edwards Doesn't Rule Out Return to Politics; He's Focused on Volunteer Work

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

John Edwards says he has few illusions. He knows the picture many Americans hold of him is not a pretty one. He also knows that even before he was engulfed in tabloid scandal, his electoral appeal had limits. And he believes that President Obama, the man who stole whatever rising-star magic he once had, is doing a good job.

Yet as he spends his days in his family's mansion on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, N.C., Edwards can't help but fret about how Washington and the country are getting on in his absence. He worries about the concessions that may be made on health-care reform, which he was promoting more aggressively than anyone on the presidential campaign trail. He worries about who will speak out for the country's neediest at a time when most attention is focused on the suddenly imperiled middle class.

"What happens now? If you were to ask people during the campaign who's talking most about [poverty], it was me," he said in an interview a few days ago. "There's a desperate need in the world for a voice of leadership on this issue. . . . The president's got a lot to do, he's got a lot of people to be responsible for, so I'm not critical of him, but there does need to be an aggressive voice beside the president."

It has been 10 months since Edwards looked into a TV camera and said that in 2006, while preparing for his second run for president and while his wife's cancer was in remission, he had an affair with a videographer working for him, Rielle Hunter -- and then decided to run for president anyway, risking a scandal that could have devastated Democrats' chances had he won the nomination.

He has hardly been seen since. In October, he mourned the death of his close friend and biggest financial supporter, trial lawyer Fred Baron, the man who had paid to move Hunter and her baby to Santa Barbara, Calif. In December, after being contacted by anti-poverty groups, Edwards helped deliver food and medication to Haiti. He learned in the months following that federal agents were investigating whether his campaign had funneled money to Hunter, an allegation he denies.

Last month his wife Elizabeth went on a media tour for her new memoir. She told Oprah Winfrey that she had "no idea" whether her husband was the father of Hunter's baby girl, despite his earlier avowal that it was not. Asked whether she still loved her husband, Elizabeth Edwards said, "It's complicated."

John Edwards had left the country for much of the book tour. He was in El Salvador, helping a group called Homes From the Heart with its work building houses and clinics and distributing sewing machines. The group's director, Michael Bonderer, was surprised when Edwards accepted his invitation.

"Obviously he's got some problems, but he's a nice guy," Bonderer said. "I kind of didn't know that. I thought, 'What in God's name am I going to have when he gets here?' But he's a pretty down-to-earth guy." Edwards was funny, Bonderer said. "He jokes about how it's obvious that the American people don't want him to be president."

But mostly, there are the many long hours in the big house. Edwards spends time with his two younger children, taking them on a trip to the beach last weekend. He keeps company with Elizabeth, whose cancer returned in the spring of 2007. And through it all he contemplates a lifetime of recovering from a steep fall from public grace.

"The two things I'm on the planet for now are to take care of the people I love and to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves," he said.

In agreeing to his first extended interview since confirming the affair, Edwards refused to talk about Hunter, the baby's paternity, his wife's memoir or the campaign investigation. But he spoke expansively over the phone for 90 minutes about his tumultuous decade in politics, which began when, after the death of his teenaged son in a car accident, he left behind a career as a trial lawyer to run for the U.S. Senate in 1998.

He said that for all the trauma that came of the 2008 campaign, he is not ready to declare that it had been a mistake to run, calling that a "very complex question." He believed, he said, that he had pushed Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in a more progressive direction on issues including health care -- Edwards was the first to propose an individual insurance mandate -- and that the value of his run will be determined partly by what Obama achieves on these fronts.

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