John Edwards is one lonely son of a millworker, according to a Thursday piece in The Post’s Style section. Most old friends want nothing more to do with him. So there he is, knocking around in the vast house his late wife, Elizabeth, built outside Chapel Hill, trying to raise their 11- and 13-year-old kids and make sense of how he went from presidential aspirant to pariah and criminal defendant.
Even as he prepared to stand trial Thursday on charges that he illegally funneled $1 million in 2008 presidential campaign contributions to his then-mistress Rielle Hunter, one of the few old pals who hasn’t given up on him told The Post that Edwards spends not a little of his time wondering why he’s not yet been forgiven, and given the free pass he thinks Bill Clinton got.
“He knows he’s made mistakes,” said his old law school friend Glenn Bergenfield, who was even closer to Elizabeth and once told me she could’ve married any man in their class. “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.’” Which pretty much sums up his problem, which is that he’s still thinking an awful lot about what other people have done.
John, since you asked, here’s the deal: From Day One, you sold yourself as Bill Clinton with his pants on.
You threw rocks at both Bill and Hillary Clinton every chance you got. “I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office,” you said, while first running for the Senate 15 years ago. Disrespect, too, you said, “for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen.”
As it turned out, you were a Clinton wannabe, jealous then as now. And though it wasn’t easy, in the end you did best him when it came to “breathtaking” disrespect.
Both John and Elizabeth, may she rest in peace, marketed John Kerry’s vice presidential pick as the guy we knew we could trust because of Elizabeth and his relationship with her. Which helped him enormously, and then hurt him in equal measure when we came to see it as false advertising.
No political spouse I can remember was as beloved as she — the anti-Barbie, she called herself. And, although she never said it, the living proof he wasn’t as shallow as he sometimes seemed.
I once got a hint that he resented her for that, when he told me a supposedly funny story about the time she corrected his grammar at a “fancy Manhattan dinner party.”
But there’s a reason his friends haven’t forgiven him for renewing his wedding vows at the height of his affair, after Elizabeth starved herself to fit back into her wedding gown.
It’s that, unlike Hillary Clinton, who not only survived but went on to do the best work of her life post-Monica, Elizabeth was dying when her husband betrayed her. And when he said on national TV that hey, she’d been in remission at the time, well, that was one boohoo of self-justification he should have saved for his diary.
The Associated Press reported that, as a man who made his fortune and fame as a trial lawyer, he sure was looking forward to getting back in front of a jury on Thursday, even as a defendant. (Naturally he is, my friend Walter Shapiro said. “Just like dentists love their own root canals.”)
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles told the 100 potential jurors who showed up in her Greensboro, N.C., courtroom that “this is not a case about whether Mr. Edwards was a good husband or politician” – and he can thank God for that.
After he finally, belatedly acknowledged having fathered a child with Hunter, and I wrote about it, Elizabeth wrote to me suggesting that her acknowledgment of the situation, even after his initial half-true confession on television, was more complicated than anyone who wasn’t in her shoes could ever know. Now, what she knew and when she knew it is at the center of the case, which will turn in part on whether he was trying to hide the affair from her, or trying to keep the campaign alive.
Either way, even after they separated, John was Elizabeth’s partner, the one person who completely shared her grief over the loss of their 16-year-old son Wade, and the father of the children she literally loved more than life.
Unlike her, however, the American public had not invested everything in John Edwards. Even in a country where second chances are not too hard to come by, I’m not sure there is a path to redemption for him in the public’s view. Whatever way back there was ended when he lost what people liked best about him.
And whatever way forward there is will depend on his no longer needing the public approval he is so unlikely to get, whatever the jury decides.
Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaDC.