When he began his second campaign for president in 2008, John Edwards was considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. His relatively populist rhetoric would also foreshadow America’s political turn years later. Within four years, however, Edwards had become one of the most hated politicians in America while facing federal charges for misusing campaign funds. In his home state, no stranger to political corruption, Edwards’ name has become synonymous with political sleaze.
It did not start out that way.
The son of a textile mill factory worker, Edwards was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and was a young, incredibly successful trial attorney in North Carolina when he decided to run for the Senate in 1998. In the general election, Edwards soundly defeated Republican incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth, and immediately became a star in national Democratic politics, landing a place on Democratic nominee Al Gore’s vice presidential shortlist in 2000.
“He came across as someone who spoke to the average North Carolinian, but presented an image of maybe more of an elite politician,” Dr. Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC, and a longtime observer of the state’s politics, told Splinter. “Being a trial attorney, it’s about charisma. It’s about engaging the audience, whether it’s 12 jury members or a crowd at a political rally. That’s kind of an elite politician capability, someone who has that visible dynamic in working the crowd.”
In the warped perception of time and space that is 2019, it’s been eons since John Edwards was a high-profile Democratic star with a boundless future in politics. But over a decade on, the scandal is worth revisiting, if only because it was one of the defining examples of shame ending a burgeoning political career—something which does not seem to happen that often anymore.
While Edwards had the looks and charisma of a politician, it’s safe to say his political instincts paled in comparison to those of his wife, Elizabeth Edwards. A successful lawyer in her own right for nearly two decades, Elizabeth retired from law in 1996 after the couple’s 16-year old son Wade was killed in a car accident. Instead, she devoted herself to furthering John’s political career. For six years, at least, this was a wildly successful venture.
In 2004, Edwards decided to run for president instead of seeking a second term in the Senate. He lost the Democratic primary, but nominee John Kerry picked him as his running mate (a choice he later said he regretted). As you may have heard, they lost to George W. Bush. The day Kerry conceded the election, Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Even then, there were signs about the kind of politician Edwards was. Here’s longtime Democratic consultant Bob Shrum with a creepy anecdote from his 2007 memoir:
Edwards had told Kerry he was going to share a story with him that he’d never told anyone else—that after his son Wade had been killed, he climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, laid there and hugged his body, and promised that he’d do all he could to make life better for people, to live up to Wade’s ideals of service. Kerry was stunned, not moved, because, as he told me later, Edwards had recounted the same exact story to him, almost in the exact same words, a year or two before—and with the same preface, that he’d never shared the memory with anyone else.
After the campaign, Edwards joined a Wall Street investment firm, but stayed active in politics with an eye toward 2008. In 2006, as Edwards was traveling across the country ahead of the announcement that he would run for president in 2008, he met a filmmaker named Rielle Hunter who pitched him on the idea of running a behind-the-scenes documentary of sorts, to be posted in episodes online.
“I didn’t think it was John Edwards,” Hunter told Newsweek in 2006, “because the public persona did not mesh at all with the person who was sitting in front of me.”
Edwards announced his second consecutive run for the presidency in December 2006. Three months later, the family announced that Elizabeth’s cancer had returned and metastasized, and was now stage IV; although the cancer was incurable, they said at the time, it was treatable. “I’m absolutely ready for this,” Elizabeth said. “I mean, I don’t look sickly, I don’t feel sickly. And I’m as ready as any person can be for that.”
In September 2007, Sam Stein of HuffPost—then in its infancy—reported that the Hunter-produced webisodes had been thoroughly scrubbed from the internet in an extremely sketchy fashion. The next month, the National Enquirer published a scoop that an unnamed woman who had worked on Edwards’ campaign had confided in friends that she had an affair with Edwards. From that story:
Disclosed her friend: “She initially confided in a few of her closest pals that she was sleeping with ‘a married man named John.’
“It became clear the married man was John Edwards. They got together whenever they could, mostly at hotels where Edwards and his campaign staff stayed.”
The woman later spelled it out in a phone call to her pal and talked openly about having an affair with Edwards.
Through her lawyer, Hunter called the claims “completely unfounded and ridiculous.” After the Enquirer story, though, Stein posted a follow-up revealing that Hunter had been paid six figures for these videos, and that her own website had been scrubbed.
Edwards called the allegations “completely untrue, ridiculous,” and launched into what might be described today as a proto-wife guy defense.
His marriage had long been seen as a key part of John’s charm, and it was easy to see why. Here was this Ken doll guy (albeit one with a history of working for vulnerable people against powerful interests) seemingly devoted to an older, outspoken, whip-smart wife whose political judgment he appeared to trust implicitly. Elizabeth was also leaps and bounds ahead politically of the Democratic Party at the time; she was a staunch opponent of the Iraq War from the very beginning and later embraced Cindy Sheehan’s lonely fight against the Bush administration. She also came out in support of gay marriage in 2007, during her husband’s second run for the presidency. Edwards didn’t seem to mind having his wife openly disagree with his politics, which made people like the couple even more. It all added up to a potent, irresistible narrative, and John Edwards leaned on it heavily.
“I’ve been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years,” Edwards said when asked about the affair rumors, “and as anybody who’s been around us knows, she’s an extraordinary human being; warm, loving, beautiful, sexy and as good a person as I have ever known.”
The Enquirer’s work, meanwhile, was far from finished. In December, they published a story with photos of a pregnant Rielle Hunter, with sources claiming that Hunter had told them that Edwards was the father. Following this revelation, Edwards staffer Andrew Young abruptly announced that he was the father of the child, not Edwards.
Meanwhile, it was rapidly becoming clear that the Democratic primary was a two-horse race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The death blow came in late January, when Obama dominated in South Carolina—the state where Edwards was born, and the site of his biggest win in 2004—and Edwards finished third. Less than a week later, he dropped out. In May, as the campaign was coming to a close, Edwards endorsed Obama; he was later reportedly on Obama’s vice presidential shortlist.
In July, however, the Hunter story came back in full force. The Enquirer received a tip about a late night hotel visit by Edwards to Hunter and her child, who had been born in February, while Edwards was in Los Angeles. The Enquirer reported that Edwards spent roughly five hours with Hunter and the baby both in and out of the hotel, before Edwards attempted to leave. He was met by a brigade of Enquirer reporters:
Shocked to see a reporter, and without saying anything, Edwards ran up the stairs leading from the hotel basement to the lobby. But, spotting a photographer, he doubled back into the basement. As he emerged from the stairwell, reporter [Alan] Butterfield questioned him about his hookup with Rielle.
Edwards did not answer and then ran into a nearby restroom. He stayed inside for about 15 minutes, refusing to answer questions from the NATIONAL ENQUIRER about what he was doing in the hotel. A group of hotel security men eventually escorted him from the men’s room, while preventing the NATIONAL ENQUIRER reporters from following him out of the hotel.
Two weeks later, Edwards finally copped to the affair, while still maintaining that he wasn’t the father of Hunter’s child. In her own statement, Elizabeth Edwards said that she had known about the affair, and had helped to conceal it.
Although the abject depravity of the scandal—the man’s wife, who everybody loved, had cancer!—was somewhat shocking, Bitzer, the Catawba College professor, told Splinter that people weren’t exactly surprised, given that Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was still fresh in the minds of the public. “A dynamic politician who comes across as hungry for political office and power has the tendency to fall into this trap,” Bitzer said.
Edwards was finished. He had cheated on his cancer-stricken wife and then launched an elaborate scheme to cover it up, and at this point he hadn’t even accepted his paternity of the child born from his relationship with Hunter. Astonishingly, though, the story didn’t end there.
In May 2009, Elizabeth Edwards went public with her account of the affair in a new book. At the time, she said, her husband had told her he had just had a one-night stand with Hunter, rather than the long affair it turned out to be. She also revealed that she had asked Edwards to drop out of the presidential race but that he had refused. “I wanted him to drop out of the race, protect our family from this woman, from his act,” she wrote in the book.
In January 2010, John Edwards finally admitted that he was the father of Rielle Hunter’s child, ahead of an expected revelation by Young that Edwards had asked him to fake a paternity test. (Under oath years later, Young would contradict details in the tell-all book he wrote about the affair.) Less than a week later, ABC News reported that he and Elizabeth had legally separated. In March, GQ landed an exclusive interview with Rielle Hunter; in December of that year, Elizabeth died.
The following year, Edwards was indicted on several felony counts of misusing campaign funds, totaling nearly a million dollars, in his attempts to cover up the affair with Hunter and the existence of his child. In 2012, he was acquitted on one of those counts, but the jury was deadlocked on the other five, and the judge declared a mistrial.
Rielle Hunter came out with a book about the affair in 2012 and said that her and Edwards had broken up. In 2016 she did a round of interviews, including an on-camera interview with her daughter, and said that she and Edwards had only broken up in 2015. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, she praised Jeff Bezos in the Amazon CEO’s fight with National Enquirer.
Edwards has shown no interest in returning to elected office, but his name hangs over the state’s politics to this day. During a gubernatorial debate in 2016, Republican Pat McCrory shot at Democrat Roy Cooper: “You’re about as straight as another trial lawyer who became a politician in North Carolina—John Edwards.”
“When you’re a vice presidential candidate, when you’re seeking the nomination for presidency, I think that tends to elevate and leave a lasting impression,” Bitzer said of Edwards’ lasting effect on North Carolina.
Perhaps the craziest thing about the John Edwards saga, from a 2019 perspective, is that he actually left politics over it. After all, everywhere you turn, politicians who really seem like they should have left the stage by now keep hanging on. Look at Virginia, where both the governor and lieutenant governor have refused to resign over allegations of racism and sexual assault, respectively. Look at Alabama, where accused pedophile Roy Moore is gearing up for a second Senate run. Even people who have resigned, like Al Franken, have large and powerful constituencies defending them to the hilt against several allegations of sexual harassment.
And, of course, there is Donald Trump, a Republican president who’s had three wives, not to mention dozens of sexual harassment and assault claims made against him, and who was literally caught on tape bragging about groping women, yet who is sitting comfortably in the White House. Edwards’ betrayals doomed him in 2008. Over a decade later, it’s an open question whether they would do the same.
Whatever the case, Edwards appears to be doing just fine these days. After his trial, he opened a personal injury practice in Raleigh with former law partner David Kirby, where his daughter Cate—who serves as president of the foundation set up in memory of Elizabeth Edwards—is a partner. Otherwise, he basically disappeared from public view. (Splinter requested comment from Edwards via his law firm, and we’ll update if we hear back.)
But in May, Edwards gave an exclusive interview to local Raleigh station WRAL, the first on-camera interview he had given in six years, to discuss his life after politics and to draw attention to two high-profile local cases the firm is working on. “Those are high-profile, high-pressure cases,” Edwards said. “This is what we love doing. This is what we do.”
“So things are pretty good?” reporter Amanda Lamb asked him at the end of the interview.
“Oh, for me? Yeah, I’m just lucky right now,” he said.