Indictment of Sen. John Edwards Spurs Legal Debate, Laments for Opportunities Lost

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A federal grand jury handed down a six-count indictment today against former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards that he illegally used campaign funds to cover up an extramarital affair.

John Edwards
Image by Alex De Carvalho via Flickr.

The indictment alleges that Edwards violated federal election laws by conspiring to direct nearly $1 million in payments to his mistress, Rielle Hunter. In 2008, Edwards admitted that he had carried on a two-year affair with Hunter while presenting a public image of a family man devoted to his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Edwards lost her battle with breast cancer last year.

At issue is whether Edwards is a criminal in addition to being a cad.

Edwards' attorneys contend that the money paid to Hunter should not be considered campaign contributions and therefore, do not violate federal election laws. But the indictment maintains that the payments were made to protect Edwards' presidential chances, and should therefore be considered contributions. US News columnist Susan Mulligan thinks that might be a stretch:

"Prosecutors are looking at whether the money paid to Hunter and the former campaign aide constitute some sort of illegal political donation, since covering up the affair had the effect of improving Edwards’s public image -- such as it was. By that logic, almost anything could be construed as a political donation -- if someone offered to mow his lawn, is that an illegal in-kind contribution, since a well-manicured lawn makes someone look like an upstanding homeowner, and therefore a more attractive candidate?"

However, law professor and blogger Ann Althouse smells a whiff of hypocrisy in the argument mounted by Edwards' lawyers:

"When John Edwards was a Senator, did he not vote for laws that made campaign finance matters into crimes?"

As of this writing, Edwards is expected to appear in a federal court in about 30 minutes to plead "not guilty" to all of the charges. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

During his presidential runs in 2004 and especially in 2008, Edwards presented a carefully crafted image that borrowed heavily from former Sen. Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Like Kennedy, Edwards presented himself as a champion of the poor. Nature helped the Kennedy comparison too, with that boyish, athletic build, the shock of light brown hair, the confident grin.

John Edwards 2008
Sen. Edwards campaigning in Minnesota in 2008. Image: © Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA Press

But there was also a touch of Bill Clinton with his invocation of his working-class roots, calls for fiscal responsibility and his effort to present himself as a man of the New South who could build coalitions across racial lines. Writing for the Washington Post, Chris Cilizza credits Edwards with getting the Democratic Party to focus on the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. As Newsweek's John Darman noted in 2007, Edwards appealed to voters to help him "end the work Bobby Kennedy started."

But in that same article, Darman notes that Edwards had a hard time ginning up voter enthusiasm for his message. Critics mocked Edwards for spouting anti-poverty rhetoric while he lived on a luxurious estate and paid $400 for haircuts, but Darman opined that the real problem was, "the perception that Edwards will pay any price to maintain his flawless veneer."

The truly sad thing about all of this is that with US unemployment at 9.1 percent, and the poverty rate at its highest since 1994, populist champions seem to be in short supply. John Edwards' fall from grace comes at the time when his message might finally have resonated.

Kim Pearson
BlogHer Contributing Editor|KimPearson.net|

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