It has been a few days since John Edwards went on national television to admit an extramarital affair.
While the passage of time has calmed some of the tumult surrounding this latest sex scandal, North Carolina’s former senator has yet to emerge on the other side of this dark cloud of controversy. In fact, Edwards probably lacks the political thrust to ever escape fully from the gravity of his mistake.
Never considered a true heavyweight in his home state, Edwards managed to build a national reputation using a well-crafted blend of compassion and sincerity. Even the national media, which usually jump on the first sign of impropriety involving a public figure, was slow in accepting the sad reality that Edwards was not the devoted family man he portrayed himself to be.
Now that he has been exposed as a fraud, in at least one aspect of his reputation, he likely will find the pitch of his descent on the national scene will surpass the trajectory of his rapid rise to political stardom.
The facts surrounding Edwards’ dalliance with Rielle Hunter, a woman hired by his campaign to produce videos, were first published by the National Enquirer in October 2007, while he was still a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The tabloid, which often publishes sensationalized accounts and stories centered on the private lives of celebrities, is not always taken seriously. As a result, Edwards coasted on his image as a nice guy and family man, publicly remaining under consideration as Barack Obama’s potential running mate.
The Enquirer never backed away from the story, including the still unproven allegation that Edwards had fathered Hunter’s child. In mid-July, its reporters tracked Edwards to a Beverly Hills hotel, where he paid a late-night visit to a room occupied by Hunter and the baby.
Newspapers in Charlotte and Raleigh began to stir around the allegations, and their reports started showing up in other newspapers. Finally, Edwards granted an interview with ABC News during which he admitted the affair but denied that he had fathered the baby.
There remain unanswered questions about Edwards’ affair — including ones about the baby and the media’s general reluctance to jump on the story — but the damage largely has been done for the former senator.
Unlike many of the other big names who have managed to survive such allegations, or even worse — people such as former President Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Edward Kennedy or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — Edwards never built a record of genuine accomplishment that he can use to break his fall.
In fact, one could argue his strongest attribute has been his wife, Elizabeth. That only serves to call more attention to his personal failure.
Elizabeth Edwards, diagnosed with a type of cancer that cannot be cured, has had a life that would break many lesser women. In addition to forging ahead despite her precarious health, she has also dealt with the terrible loss of her 16-year-old son in an automobile accident.
Despite her sorrow, Elizabeth Edwards has remained strong, serene and dignified in the face of tragedy and betrayal. She deserves to be admired as the best part of the man who rose to become a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket.
Eventually, Edwards should again have an opportunity to put his considerable skills and wealth to good use. That chance almost certainly will be confined to the private sector, where he will find many positive things can be done, even by those ostracized in the fickle circle of politics.