The two faces of John Edwards

Backed by his friendly Southern drawl, the practiced charm of a courtroom warrior and a smile bright enough to blind the camera’s eye, John Edwards never lacked the confidence to take the big risk.

He risked in the courtroom, making millions as a trial lawyer by winning cases for underdog clients. He gambled as a political rookie, successfully challenging a GOP Senate incumbent in his very first run for public office. He took a chance while a member of that most exclusive club, leaving after a single term to run for the White House.

And so why not one more risk?

Why not run again for president, this time while carrying on an extramarital affair that could easily sink his campaign and — should he win the Democratic nomination — his party’s hopes of winning the Oval Office?

"The first time he kissed her, he should have been thinking, ‘Goodbye to my political career,’" said Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science and psychology at Stanford University. But candidates such as Edwards "feel invulnerable, that they feel it has gone on all of the time, that I’m not going to be scrutinized at this level … and it will stay private."

It took nearly a year for the tabloid accusations, which Edwards was quick to dismiss and his supporters were quick to ignore, for the former North Carolina senator to finally admit Friday to having an affair in 2006 with a woman who produced a handful of videos for his campaign.

In doing so, Edwards admitted he was seduced by his own success and the lavish attention and praise that came with his meteoric rise from his roots in Raleigh as a successful but relatively unknown personal injury attorney.

Just two years after his Senate victory, he was on Al Gore’s short list for vice president. After losing his own bid for the Democratic nomination a few years later, he bounced back by winning a spot as John Kerry’s running mate on the party’s ticket. Running again last year, he entered the race as one of the three favorites on the Democratic side.

"In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic," Edwards said in a confessional statement released Friday. "If you want to beat me up — feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself."

That is unlikely.

Many of those closest to Edwards did not hide their disappointment and anger after the 55-year-old husband and father admitted to both having an affair with filmmaker Rielle Hunter and lying about it for months. Former campaign manager David Bonior said he was one of the thousands of friends and supporters that Edwards betrayed, and he shuddered when thinking about what might have happened had Edwards beaten Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in the party’s primaries.

"You can’t lie in politics and expect to have people’s confidence," he said.

On Saturday, the issues surrounding the affair became more complicated when Hunter said through her attorney that she will not participate in DNA testing to establish the paternity of her 5-month-old daughter. That decision by Hunter 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. A former Edwards campaign staff member professes to be the father. On Friday night, Edwards said he would be willing to take a paternity test to put the issue to rest.

When leaving the race in January, Edwards extracted a pledge from his rivals to make ending poverty as central to their campaign as it was to his own. It was seen then as a sign that Edwards didn’t plan to leave public life behind, and indeed, a few months later his timely endorsement helped voters forget Obama’s ugly 41-point loss to Clinton in the West Virginia primary.

Before rumors about his affair began spreading in Democratic circles, many expected Edwards to speak at this month’s Democratic National Convention as a potential candidate for a cabinet post in an Obama administration. That’s all gone now, said Dennis Wicker, a Democrat who was North Carolina’s lieutenant governor from 1993 to 2001.

"His credibility is shot. His political career is over," Wicker said. "I don’t know what causes one to cross a bright line like this one, but it’s probably going to haunt him for the rest of his life … it’s colossal."

Edwards has always had a compelling personal story: the son of a mill worker in rural South Carolina who became a millionaire and later spurred to public service in part by the accidental death of his 16-year-old son. But for all his popularity, especially within the Democratic Party’s progressive movement, Edwards doesn’t have a strong base in North Carolina on which to build a recovery.

He only beat GOP Sen. Lauch Faircloth by three percentage points in 1998, and then didn’t serve long enough in the Senate to build a legacy of constituent service that powered his controversial contemporary — Sen. Jesse Helms — to five terms in office. Even though he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, North Carolina voted for President Bush.

And he is hardly a traditional populist, bedeviled during his campaign by tales of $400 haircuts and reminders of his 102-acre estate — complete with basketball gym and 28,000-square-foot mansion — outside of Chapel Hill.

Any return to public life would also bring charges of hypocrisy: In 2007, a year after Edwards says he ended the affair with Hunter, he told CBS News that it’s a "fair evaluation for America to engage in, to look at what kind of human beings each of us are, and what kind of president we’d make."

Finally, the affair is sure to be seen as a particularly painful blow to his wife, Elizabeth, who continued to campaign during his second run for the White House after she was diagnosed with an incurable recurrence of cancer. Few would argue that his wife is as beloved, if not more, than Edwards himself.

"I liked him before, but I don’t see any integrity," said Gina Mohammid Nasir, 43, a yoga teacher from Wilmington. "The image of him and his wife was very important … the image of that union."

If there is any hope for an Edwards redemption, it will come from those touched by yet another of his risks: to base a pair of national political campaigns on a fight against poverty and the struggles of low-income Americans.

In Greene County, Edwards founded a program in 2005 that sent 190 high school graduates to college for free. Those who benefited said Friday that his personal infidelities, no matter how distasteful, could not undo such good works.

"I have great things to say about John Edwards. He opened that window up for our rural community," said Sara Johnson, whose son Tyler earned one of the scholarships. "It gave something to our community, and our students and their families."


Associated Press writers Erin Gartner and Marlon A. Walker in Raleigh, Kevin Maurer in Wilmington, and Whitney Woodward in Chapel Hill contributed to this report.


  1. Sandra Price

    Edwards has set up many scholarships for American kids at a great cost to himself in time and money. Americans are sex crazed fools as anyone can see from our television shows and those blue pills that are handed out to men of all ages. It is time we grew up. Edwards broke his oath of fidelity to Elizabeth and there is no guarantee he would not have broken his oath of office to the Constitution. The key word is “oath” and apparently this taken on the bible has lost all its meaning. I think it always has and Americans are still hoping for the God that is mentioned in our government. Some day we will recognize that an oath means nothing without a man of honor taking it on any book.

    The voters lack honor when we continue to bring men and women into power based on their promised handouts. We are a helpless nation needing the nanny state.

  2. Janet

    I am so utterly disappointed in John AND Elizabeth Edwards. I always liked them both and looked forward to seeing him with the Attorney General post in the Obama administration.

    It was awful that he would chaat on his wonderful and cancer-stricken wife and lie about it, but I get that. What really gets to me is that even after the first reports of his affair came out in the tabloids last October, Elizabeth already knew about the “past” affair, and he was still having it behind her back, he STILL ran for president. Had he gotten the nomination and this came out now, it would have doomed the Democrats victory in November. How could he run, knowing that this could take down the whole presidency for the Democrats? Totally narcissitic and unacceptable behavior.

    John, we hardly knew ye.

  3. Ladywolf55

    Anyone who would stand by their man after he’s done something of this magnitude, I cannot respect.

    Elizabeth, we hardly knew ye. Kick that sleaze ball to the curb and apologize to your countrymen for lying and protecting your snake of a husband!

  4. sherry

    I can’t believe all this handwringing. Studies have shown adultery rears its ugly head in 50% of marriages. I have seen it happen to prominent ministers, and folks at work I never would have imagined as cheaters.
    It happens.
    What amazes me is how anyone thinks this is any of our business? Why in the world is National Enquirer headlines in the main stream media?
    This is between Edwards, his family and his God. He owes me nothing.
    Yes, he lied. Most cheaters do. They became a liar when they violated their vows, in the darkness when no one was looking. That was the first lie. The rest came even easier than the first.
    I feel for his family. This is a private matter and should remain so.
    Why is our society so preoccupied with sex. Are too many people going without or what?

  5. Nogood

    The word disappointment is not strong enough, but then I realize that we are all guilty of shortcomings and I refuse to cast stones. I am reminded of a crude saying, “a hard dick has no conscience”. Good-bye Mr. Edwards, you have just “sealed” your political life.

  6. woody188

    Edwards was a lawyer and politician, and we are surprised he lied?

    Champion of middle class values?

    Yeah, right. Sure. He is as middle class as Bill Gates.

    Give me a break. Who cares that a man that gets $250 haircuts and lives in a $6 million dollar mansion got caught cheating?

    Apparently the corporate media thinks we care about this issue more than our country falling apart. Diffuse, distract, and dominate.

  7. keith

    I’ve always found it fascinating that our culture will blissfully allow all manner of illegal shenanigans to be perpetrated by our elected officials, both in and out of office.

    But just let one of them be found with a certain part of their anatomies in the help (or tapping their feet “inappropriately” in an airport restroom), and all hell breaks loose.

    We are a nation that (supposedly) prides itself in allowing personal freedom and social “enlightenment”. Yet we continue to allow an ever-shrinking minority of tongue-wagging busybodies and hypocrites to obsessively foist their horribly misplaced moral agendas on the rest of us.

    Clearly, what Mr. Edwards did (or didn’t do) behind closed doors is between the participants and their families. Period.

    Our culture’s seemly preoccupation with (and prudish over-regulation of) things sexual (particularly regarding what consenting adults freely choose to do in their private lives) is, to me, even more disgusting than letting the clearly illegal behavior of crooked politicians continue to go unpunished.

  8. Direct Democracy

    More fluff from a Fourth Estate that stopped doing its job a long, long time ago.



  9. JudyB

    There’s a verse from a Bob Marley song that goes “I know that I’m not perfect And I don’t claim to be. So before you point your fingers..Be sure your hands are clean.”
    In life there are a whole lot of “dirty hands” and though the dirt on these hands may get there by different means and methods..its still dirt. The worst stained hand will eventually be clean…only to get dirty again.
    In politics,the ideal situation would be to know what kind of dirt your dealing with when you elect someone to office.
    I do not concern myself with the blow jobs of a politician because they don’t cause any damage to me ..But the snow jobs..they are the cause of some real and lasting damages.