George Jonas

Thirty years for vice?

Society is eager to impose on John Edwards the morality it doesn't practise itself

by George Jonas
National Post

On display in a North Carolina courtroom is low life in high places. It stars former senator John Edwards, with a supporting cast of characters to match. I wouldn't necessarily exclude the legal talent assembled to prosecute and judge the glossy Democratic vice-presidential nominee of 2008. To a finicky outside observer, at least, it seems that defendant and legal system deserve each other.

Sen. Edwards is the handsome, well-coiffed, ambitious ex-trial lawyer of fashionably centre-left politics, who tried eight years ago to become the leader of the free world, as U.S. presidents used to be called. Who knows why he thought the job needed him or why he needed the job, but four years later, in 2008, he tried again. This time he settled for being on the Democratic ticket as the world's vice-leader - and to hear lead prosecutor David Harbach II outline the case, he may have actually made it as a world leader in vice.

It seems Sen. Edwards combined reaching for a sleeve of George Washington's mantle with cheating on his wife, Elizabeth, who had been loyally standing by the guy she believed was her man, while battling cancer. Cheating on a sick spouse isn't nice, but it isn't against the law, as the prosecutor has been careful to point out. It would be harder to say what is against the law, but if the Democratic Don Juan's accusers are right, using campaign contributions to hide one's pregnant mistress from one's wife, the press, and the electorate may be.

Is it? Did he? The defence didn't think there was any evidence for it, but then the defence rarely thinks so. The prosecution thought there was, but it rarely thinks otherwise. Trial judge Catherine C. Eagles agreed with the prosecutor, as on this particular question judges almost invariably do. "Let the jury decide."

The nattily turned out ex-senator from North Carolina has been indicted under one of the murkiest laws ever devised. The campaign financing statute that Edwards is charged with having breached four times, conspired to breach once, and lied about having breached another time, means whatever one lawyer pleading before a bench persuades another lawyer sitting on it that it should mean, until the next lawyer sitting on a higher bench says it means something else. While this may be true of all laws, it's truer of some than others, and it's particularly true of the one used here to hold the presidential-candidate-turned-moral-pariah's feet to the fire.

Washington couldn't tell a lie, but Sen. Edwards made it look easy. He had no trouble saying he didn't have an affair when he did or that a child wasn't his when it was.

Americans aren't as easygoing about presidential peccadilloes as Europeans, but they usually cut the commander-in-chief some slack. To wear Washington's mantle, Sen. Edwards needed only enough self-control to park his libido, not necessarily for the duration of his term in the White House -- no one today has such unreasonable expectation of American presidents anymore -- but at least until he could turn the Oval Office into a bachelor pad, as his illustrious Democratic predecessor had done.

But Bill Clinton's yardstick placed too heavy a burden on Sen. Edwards' moral resources. He couldn't even wait to get his party's nomination before embarking on a dalliance of some complexity, to the considerable and eventually highly vocal dismay of his cancer-stricken wife. She wasn't going "gentle into that good night," and who could blame her? By the time she passed away in 2010, the scandal had gone into high gear.

The media smelled blood, and so did crime hunters and prosecutors. Crusaders for justice and integrity, from the loftiest legislators down to the lowliest snoops, scribblers and snitches, are quick studies. They learn on the job that high-profile sleaze is the rocket fuel of hyperbolic careers in law and law enforcement, and doesn't hurt media careers either. Nattily-dressed Sen. Edwards obliged to act as their fodder. He sired a daughter with Rielle Hunter, his mistress and campaign "videographer," whose name sounded like the sexual fantasy of a daytime soap opera writer. Next, Edwards persuaded his loyal aide, Andrew Young, a married man, to falsely assume paternity for the senator's love-child, in an attempt to hide his relationship from his increasingly desperate and suspicious wife. (Young did, then turned prosecution witness.) This set the stage. There was a slick but vaguely presidential-looking Lothario, who was deceiving a mother, a cancer-survivor, a woman -- and if that weren't bad enough, he was withholding information from the holy media. That put the lid on it. Now, if convicted of all counts, Sen. Edwards faces a potential 30 years of penal servitude.

Thirty years for what, for heaven's sake? Moral turpitude? That's more time than serial killers get. Ah, yes, but what Sen. Edwards did isn't merely a breach of common law like murder. That's piffle, available to all societies. No, this is serious stuff: the alleged breach of an administrative edict. It means failing to see how societies will impose the morality they don't practice. Screw with that, son, and away you go for 30 years, unless a juror takes pity on your sorry posterior.