A new CBS News poll found John Edwards has a 3 percent approval rating, in a survey with a 3-point margin of error. It is possible no one approves of the disgraced former politician.
He is now on trial for allegedly violating campaign-finance laws in an elaborate scheme to cover up his love child during his 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Lots of husbands cheat on their wives. Fewer do it while their wives are fighting a losing battle with cancer. Fewer still — in fact, only one comes to mind — do it while using their wife’s grave illness and their attractive young family as credentials in a presidential campaign.
If Edwards were being prosecuted for shameful dereliction of duty as a husband and father, he’d deserve 30 years of hard labor. If he were on trial for extreme oleaginous insincerity, he’d deserve to be sent to the nearest supermax prison. If he could be charged with running two faux-populist presidential campaigns (first in 2004, then in 2008) that were all about stroking his own ego, he’d deserve to hang at dawn.
None of these things is a criminal offense, though. And neither is paying hush money to your mistress. In the case of United States of America v. Johnny Reid Edwards, it is the United States of America that is out of line.
Two Edwards backers, heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and the late trial lawyer and Edwards crony Fred Baron, provided payments to help Edwards cover his slimy tracks. Almost a million dollars went to Edwards’s mistress, Rielle Hunter, and to lackey Andrew Young, who claimed paternity of Edwards’s love child with Hunter in an act of twisted and self-abasing loyalty to his boss. Even James Ellroy, the hard-bitten crime novelist whose work revels in corruption of all kinds, might recoil from this tawdry crew.
The government contends that the payments constituted campaign contributions in violation of federal limits on donations. The obvious hitch in this charge is that the money didn’t go to the Edwards campaign and wasn’t used by the Edwards campaign. Paying off your mistress is not a campaign expense, not even in 21st-century America, not even in Louisiana, not even in the John Edwards campaign.
Of course, news of the affair with a flaky, star-struck videographer would have sunk candidate Edwards faster than it took him to get one of his $400 haircuts. But he had a more elemental reason to keep his secret: to prevent his reputation from getting torn to shreds, regardless of his presidential campaign. If he had once again been a sitting U.S. senator, or a prominent trial lawyer in North Carolina, he surely would have been just as determined to hide his disgrace. As it happens, the payments and Edwards’s lies continued after his exit from the presidential race. Dishonesty and betrayal weren’t campaign activities for Edwards; they were a way of life.
Even the campaign-finance obsessives at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) consider the case an overreach. CREW points out an absurdity that follows from the government’s argument. If keeping Rielle Hunter quiet is rightly considered a campaign expenditure, as the prosecutors maintain, then the Edwards campaign could have funded her living expenses directly without breaking any rules. “Love child” could have been a legitimate line item in the budget somewhere between “get out the vote” and “phone banks.”
The prosecution is a naked exercise in attempting to punish a loathsome man for his loathsomeness. As such, it is an offense against the rule of law, which depends on clear rules and dispassionate judgments. Every wrong — even flagrant wrongs, played out in public and involving mind-boggling deceit — is not a crime. By stretching the laws to try to reach Edwards, the government is creating the precedent for future ambiguous, politicized prosecutions, perhaps of figures much less blameworthy than the reviled man currently in the dock.
John Edwards belongs under a rock, but not in jail.