John Edwards: his path from golden boy to persona non grata in North Carolina

Reports that the US Justice Department is moving ahead with a potential indictment against John Edwards underscore how much his political ascent was dashed on the rocks by an affair, a love child, and, allegedly, a $1 million payoff.

Jim R. Bounds/AP/File
In this Dec. 2010 photo, Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is seen in Raleigh, N.C.

John Edwards was the Democratic golden boy with the Carolina drawl, boyish grin, and flip-flop hairstyle, who came within a few million votes of becoming vice president of the United States in 2004.

But reports Wednesday that the US Justice Department is moving ahead with a potential indictment against Mr. Edwards – who was also a presidential candidate in 2008 – underscore how much his political ascent was dashed on the rocks by an affair, a love child, and, allegedly, a $1 million payoff.

Nowhere is Edwards's meteoric fall from the political stratosphere to social outcast more evident than in his home state of North Carolina, a mid-Southern state that prides itself on the quality of its home-grown personalities, be they actors, CEOs or politicians. These days, Edwards doesn't get invited to political events, the University of North Carolina has distanced his name from a poverty foundation he initiated, and few people come to shake his hand at UNC basketball games, for which he has season tickets.

To be sure, even here in the South, which places a high value on redemption, his former supporters see in part a tragedy fomented by common and forgivable events, including romantic indiscretion. Yet Edwards's momentous betrayal of trust with his family and supporters has bred an unusual depth of dismay and disillusionment in North Carolina.

His persona non grata status in the Tar Heel State is at least partly a reaction to the close personal connection that many North Carolinians had made to his hardscrabble beginnings.

In 1998, Edwards won a North Carolina Senate seat out of nowhere. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he landed on the vice presidential shortlist of Al Gore. But his trajectory ultimately skimmed over and hid critical character flaws.

"Edwards fell victim to longstanding temptations faced by people in power, usually men, but he's also an expression of what's new in our politics: He had never lost a campaign; he jumped from the bottom of the ladder to the top without having to climb it," says Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose son once started a high school "Edwards for President" chapter.

The possible indictment is the result of a two-year investigation focusing on $1 million from two wealthy campaign donors – Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and the late Fred Baron – during the 2008 presidential race. According to former Edwards aide Andrew Young, who wrote the tell-all book "The Politician," the "Bunny money" helped fund the coverup of Edwards's affair with Rielle Hunter, a freelance campaign videographer.

The legal questions are whether the money was used inappropriately and whether Edwards knew about the payments, which he has claimed he did not.

With his wife by his side, Edwards in 2008 admitted the affair in an attempt to take a familiar route to redemption. At that point, he still had a chance to salvage his reputation, much like politicians like Bill Clinton had before him. "In 2006, I told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness, asked God for his forgiveness. And we have kept this within our family since that time," Edwards said at the time.

But he lied when he denied being the father of Ms. Hunter's child – a falsehood the National Enquirer eventually exposed with a front-page photo of Edwards meeting with Hunter in California and holding the girl. What followed was the eventual estrangement of his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who was struggling with cancer. She died in December 2010.

The seaminess of the story, his citing God amid lies, and the drip-by-drip revelations that may become part of a criminal mosaic only fueled the sense of betrayal among his North Carolina supporters – even after Edwards largely left the public arena and retreated to his beach house.

"The story just got more and more odd with [Mr. Young] pretending to be the father of the woman's child, then her living with the Youngs and moving around, then this 'Bunny,' the rich woman, getting money from her to fund it, and a guy in Dallas orchestrating it," Mr. Guillory says. "[The bitterness in North Carolina] has to do with the death of his wife and the breakup of their marriage before her death. It has to do with his, well, just frankly not telling the truth. People said, 'John, what happened to you? How did all this happen?' "

Part of what prosecutors in Raleigh, N.C., will have to determine before they move forward with a grand jury hearing is whether Edwards has been punished enough by the consequences of his actions and the personal tragedy he has endured. If he is indicted, he could potentially take a plea bargain instead of dredging up the whole sordid tale again, in front of many North Carolinians who, at this point, have frankly heard enough about John Edwards.

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