23 Apr 2012

John Edwards – the reality behind the image

I remember well the first time I saw John Edwards the candidate. It was in 2003 in a high school in North Carolina, his home state and he bounced up to the stage with athletic ease. It could have been Tom Cruise. The resemblance was uncanny and the crowd went nuts.

In his tailored blue suite and bright blue silk tie the candidate looked every inch the millionaire trial lawyer he had been before he embarked on a political career. Despite his slick appearance and impossibly perfect hair, Edwards sounded like a populist preacher.

He spoke about the glaring reality of “two Americas”. He shone a light on the chasm between the rhetoric of the American dream and its glum reality and, surprising for a Democrat, especially a rich one, he was popular amongst working class voters, who had been flocking to the Republicans in droves.

His wife Elisabeth was also there. Plain and plain spoken, she was the grit to his gloss. They looked like a happy if physically ill-matched couple and they shared a personal tragedy that made them all the more real. Their son Wayne had died at the age of 16 in a car crash. It is the perennial nightmare of every American family where you can drive at what seems like an impossibly tender age.

Edwards had graced the cover of Vanity Fair. He was hailed as the Democrats’ new hope, long before Barack Obama came along. His southern drawl was like molasses on the ears and he was the more glamorous and likeable part of the Kerry / Edwards ticket that tried and failed to defeat George Bush and Dick Cheney in 2004.

Edwards was a star. The comparisons with JFK were inevitable. Four years later he was running again and his campaign might have fared better had he not been up against a man called Barack Obama.

What none of us guessed at the time was that Edwards was not just conducting an affair with a campaign aide and video blogger called Rielle Hunter, he had impregnated her and allegedly persuaded another aide, Andrew Young to lie and claim that the child was his. He did all this while his wife was dying of breast cancer.

He lied about it on tape, claiming that the story of the child was dreamed up by the National Enquirer that lurid supermarket magazine. It turns out the tabloid got it spot on, when other self-respecting news organisations didn’t go after the story. Perhaps they didn’t think the candidate could stoop so low. Perhaps it was out of respect for his dying wife. The sleazy reality of John Edwards went so far beyond his previous image that few wanted to believe the truth.

How could this man have gone from too good to be true to too bad to be real? Sex, lies and videotapes are nothing new in American politics. But in John Edwards they found a new low. His trial is ostensibly about an allegedly illegal campaign contribution that prosecutors claim was used to cover up the affair. It’s a bit like getting Al Capone on tax evasion.

If Edwards is found guilty he could spend three decades behind bars. But even if he’s acquitted his character is unlikely to be rehabilitated in the eyes of the public. That itself would be remarkable in a country that rewards redemption and is generous with second chances.

It is a gripping and sickening yarn and it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Aaron Sorkin, the scriptwriter who brought us the West Wing amongst other masterpieces is already working on a movie script.



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