Edwards acknowledges difficult public image
Disgraced former Democratic candidate throws himself into charity work to salvage his reputation.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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 address Hunter, the baby's paternity, his wife's memoir, or the 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 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 having run will be determined partly by what Obama achieves on these fronts.
"Did it make sense to run and stay in the race? Time will tell," he said.
He says he has no plans to make a push to restore his name, along the lines of what former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has embarked on. Reputation "is not something I'm focused on," he said. "The only relevance of it at all is my ability to help people. That's the only reason it matters. I'm not engaged in, or interested in, being in a PR campaign."
But he did not rule out a return to politics. He said it was too early to say what the future held - though an Al Gore-style advocacy role was more likely than elected office, given the scandal. He thinks "every day" about what form his future role in activism or public life could take, but "right now, a lot of that is unanswerable."
"Sometimes you just keep your head down and work hard and see what happens," he said.
After a strong showing in the 2004 primaries and his selection as John Kerry's running mate, Edwards left the Senate to prepare for a second presidential run, positioning himself as the more progressive alternative to Clinton despite a voting record that was decidedly centrist on many issues. But then Obama came along. Edwards placed second behind the relative newcomer in the Iowa caucuses, then dropped out of the race in late January. He endorsed Obama in May, putting himself in the mix for vice president or attorney general.
Then came confirmation of the affair. So total has his disappearance been that there has been little accounting of what he left behind. Many of his supporters have yet to even attempt to reckon with the meaning of his campaigns in light of last year's revelations. Some Democrats still argue that he pushed Obama and Clinton to the left. But others say his outspoken progressive platform was flawed from the outset - it was better, they say, to frame a progressive agenda in the way Obama did, with broad themes of societal uplift, instead of an explicit appeal on behalf of the poor. These critics say the sincerity of all of Edwards's rhetoric is in question now, potentially undermining future attempts by politicians to try to focus on poverty.
"The reaction going forward to a politician accepting the mantle of poverty the way Edwards did is that he would be dismissed as insincere," said Margy Waller, a policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "The risk always was that that would happen to Edwards - not related to the way he treated his wife, but the way he treated the issue overall always seemed insincere. His whole history of working on the issue was fairly limited and always somewhat suspect."