I thought John Edwards would be president one day. I was wrong.
The once-promising political career has all but disintegrated. Edwards appears on the verge of admitting he is the father of a child he once denied. Raleigh's WRAL first reported that Edwards was inching toward reversing his denials about the paternity of the child of his former lover, Reille Hunter. Then the New York Times weighed in with a front-page story about the “denoument” of the Edwards affair. “Mr. Edwards is moving toward an abrupt reversal in his public posture,” the Times said. “Associates said in interviews that he is considering declaring that he is the father of Ms. Hunter’s 19-month-old daughter, something that he once flatly asserted in a television interview was not possible.” And then there is the book proposal by his aide, Andrew Young, who says that Edwards asked him to claim paternity of the child.
It’s sordid, and it’s sad. It’s heartbreaking to watch the public wreckage of what once seemed a durable marriage and a perhaps presidential political career. John Edwards is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He's worked hard at what he cares about, but this particular tragedy seems so willfully self-inflicted, especially since John Edwards should have know n better.
In 1999, when Edwards arrived as a freshman senator, Washington was consumed by damning consequences of personal indiscretions. The sitting president had been impeached and was about to face trial in the Senate because he'd had an affair with an intern. Because of his reputation as a trial lawyer, among the first of Edwards’ tasks was to depose Monica Lewinsky for the defense in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. He had a front-row seat to the cascading ugliness that occurs when private misdeeds become public political theater.
But Clinton’s acquittal may have confirmed for Edwards that escape was always possible. He was a trial lawyer, after all, and one with a reputation for winning against long odds. That can give you a little bit of a Houdini complex, a sense that danger will never turn to disaster—especially if you are smart, and well prepared, and people like you.
The idea that he would allegedly ask a staffer to claim paternity for his child is the indelible mark of an outsized and unhinged ego—the work of a mind on the outs of reality. My guess, if this is indeed true, is that he was doing what he has always done: Trying to figure out how to work the damning or unhelpful parts of the story into a more salable whole.
After all, this approach had worked so many times before. Juries had sided with him; voters had elected him; John Kerry put him on a national ticket. It had made him rich and famous. Edwards was one of only three new Democratic senators elected in 1998 (the others were Evan Bayh of Indiana and Chuck Schumer of New York). Republicans were in the majority by a 10-seat margin. The impeached Democratic president had humiliated himself and his wife and embarrassed his party. These new senators were the future of the party; Edwards was clearly the star of the trio. It was still widely assumed that Democrats would need to nominate a Southerner if they ever wanted to win the White House again.
He was a 45-year-old hotshot who came with the entire package—the dazzling good looks, the personal charisma, the all-American family—and the moving personal story replete with the age-old American themes of poverty conquered and tragedy overcome. Three years earlier, his 16-year-old son, Wade, had been killed in a freak accident. The Edwardses looked like healthy people who had faced down their tragedy. He was on everyone’s watch list.
After serving less than two years in the Senate, he was on Al Gore’s short list for vice president in 2002. Gore gave him a long, close look before deciding that it would be irresponsible to choose someone so untested. Untested maybe, but Edwards acted like a man cramming for a big final—or preparing for a big closing argument. Edwards talked to everyone and anyone who knew anything about Washington and how it worked; he was constantly on the make. I remember watching him operate at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, amazed at his appetite for consuming information of any kind. He seemed to be always researching, always in prep mode. That's why I thought one day he'd be president. I wonder if he’s prepared for what comes next.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.