John Edwards didn’t ruin his reputation by admitting on television to an affair. By the time he sat down to come clean, the damage had already been done in private conversations by political insiders.
Edwards’ refusal to deny forcefully the charges of infidelity exposed by the National Enquirer and the private suspicions expressed by those closest to him left the widespread impression that he had cheated on his wife, known in Washington not just for her battle against cancer but as a political force in her own right and one of her husband’s best assets.
Without confirmation, the allegations were not widely reported by national media but still were damaging to Edwards. He was not being invited to speak at this month’s Democratic National Convention, out of fear that the rumors could become a distraction at the carefully orchestrated gathering.
Barack Obama’s campaign is preparing to announce the list of convention speakers in the coming days, and the fact that Edwards wasn’t going to be included forced his hand. If he didn’t tell the story first, it threatened to blow open as reporters explained why the party’s last vice presidential nominee and third-place finisher in the primary was being snubbed.
Obama, asked about how the scandal could affect Edwards’ role in his campaign and the convention, said the former North Carolina senator’s focus on working people will be amplified by the party as a whole.
"If I’m not mistaken I think that they already indicated, the Edwards family indicated, that they probably wouldn’t be attending the convention," Obama said as he landed in Hawaii on Friday for a weeklong vacation. "I understand that. This is a difficult and painful time to them. And I think they need to work through that process of healing. My sense is that that’s going to be their top priority."
Democrats who have been briefed on Obama’s running-mate search said Edwards was included in the early vetting process, although Edwards said in an interview with ABC News on Friday that he never thought he was being seriously considered since he was nominated in 2004. He said he had spoken to Obama and recommended other candidates.
It’s not likely Edwards would be nominated for a Cabinet position should Obama win, since the scandal would probably taint any confirmation process. But he told ABC that he doesn’t think his political career has ended.
On Saturday, one issue became more complicated when the woman in the affair with Edwards, Rielle Hunter, said that she will not participate in DNA testing to establish the paternity of her 5-month-old daughter. Hunter’s decision means that the issue of who the father is remains an open question. Frances Quinn Hunter, was born on Feb. 27 this year, and no father’s name is given on the birth certificate filed in California. On Friday night, Edwards said he would be willing to take a paternity test to put the matter to rest. A former Edwards campaign staff member professes to be the father.
There’s precedent for second acts for politicians touched by scandal — Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Newt Gingrich all have rebuilt their reputations.
"Obviously, it turns a defining element of his biography — his reputation as a devoted family man — upside down," said Democratic consultant Dan Newman. "But if he shows a continued commitment to his core issues and no additional facts emerge that contradict his story, he could eventually join the disturbingly large club of public figures who’ve rebounded from similar events."
Even as he made his confession, Edwards played a little politics, pointing out that Republican presidential candidate John McCain has acknowledged mistakes in his first marriage. The former trial lawyer clearly revels in politics and may try to stage a return at some point.
In a conference call with former staff and top supporters Friday night, Edwards tried to begin repairing any damage he may have done to those relationships that would be vital for a comeback. He apologized and said he was available for their questions, and after a pause former economic policy adviser Leo Hindery said they were praying for him and would support him through this time, according to a person on the call.
Others close to Edwards are reluctant to speak out, but privately they express anger or sadness, both for the family and because Edwards’ strong voice on poverty will be silenced without other prominent leaders championing the cause.
"I see no end," Edwards said when asked about whether he thought his political career would end this way. "I don’t think anything’s ended. My lord and my wife have forgiven me, so I’m going to move on."