Americans long ago reached a verdict on John Edwards

Ex-presidential candidate John Edwards speaks outside a federal courthouse after his campaign finance fraud case ended in a mistrial. Jurors acquitted Edwards on one charge and deadlocked on the other five, unable to decide whether he used money from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress while he ran for president and his wife was dying of cancer. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Ex-presidential candidate John Edwards speaks outside a federal courthouse after his campaign finance fraud case ended in a mistrial. Jurors acquitted Edwards on one charge and deadlocked on the other five, unable to decide whether he used money from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress while he ran for president and his wife was dying of cancer. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Posted: June 02, 2012

Be thankful that fate didn’t land you on the John Edwards jury.

Can you imagine spending five or six weeks of your life trying to determine whether a fallen politician deserves jail for having concealed an affair and love child with the help of a million bucks that may or may not be deemed illegal campaign contributions under federal law? My mind reels just from writing that sentence.

It’s no surprise that the Justice Department case against the two-time Democratic presidential candidate basically crashed and burned. The jurors got it right yesterday when they exonerated Edwards on one count, deadlocked on the other five counts, and the judge declared a mistrial. In nine days of deliberation, they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that Edwards was a criminal — scoundrel, yes; jailbird no — just because he took money from a pair of rich friends to abet his perfidy.

We all know by now that John Edwards is America’s Cad. But what would be the point of throwing him in the slammer? It was a waste of time and money to prosecute sin. In the words of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a nonpartisan watchdog group, the decision to haul Edwards into federal court was "ludicrous, absurd, and stupid."

Edwards’ worst sin, at least in the public realm, was his hypocrisy. He touted himself as a morality candidate, the most virtuous guy in the field. His mantra was "faith, family, responsibility." During a debate in October ’07, he said: "It is crucial for (voters) to determine who they can trust, who’s honest, who is sincere, who has integrity."

Shortly after Edwards made that pitch on stage in Philadelphia, he secretly persuaded Andrew Young, his hapless aide-acolyte, to take the fall for him, to falsely claim paternity of Rielle Hunter’s child. How Edwards could have possibly believed he’d be able to sustain this cover-up is an issue best left to the shrinks. How a family-values salesman could have allowed his extramarital playmate to record their sex on video — again, call in the shrinks.

If Edwards had won the ’08 nomination, only to have the scandal detonate in the mainstream press (as it did that summer), he would have sunk his party. That’s a big reason why Democrats shun him today. As for Americans in general, they gave Edwards a 3 percent approval rating in a recent national poll. It takes a special kind of knave to score lower than Donald Trump.

The moral judgment on Edwards has long been rendered. Why muck it up with murky legalities?

Bunny Mellon, the Edwards benefactor who ponied up most of the money that was spent on hiding Hunter, showered Edwards with her largesse before he ran for president, during his run, and after he quit. The jurors basically concluded that she was helping a friend and that Edwards was using the money to hide his personal behavior from his wife. The government insisted that the money should’ve been reported as campaign donations under federal law — since the cover-up was allegedly helping his candidacy — but it had no smoking-gun proof that Edwards knowingly intended to violate the law.

See what I mean? I told you it got murky.

CREW, the watchdog group, rightly believes that prosecuting sleazy behavior is a slippery slope. As it argued in a recent legal brief, "The government’s near boundless theory of criminal liability would sweep in anything of value given directly or indirectly to a candidate." To cite just one hypothetical, if a rich benefactor agreed to pay the medical bills of a key campaign aide, those payments could be deemed illegal contributions, in breach of the donation limits, on the grounds that the aide’s health was crucial to the candidate’s bid for office.

So let us not try to criminalize sin. The Justice Department should stick to the obvious corruption cases, like in 2006, when Democratic Congressman William Jefferson got caught with $90,000 in his freezer.

Rich Lowry, who edits the conservative National Review, was right not long ago when he said, "John Edwards belongs under a rock, not in jail." And that’s where Edwards dwells today, paying dearly for his behavior in the court of public opinion. In North Carolina, by all accounts, he rarely leaves his house. Most of his friends have un-friended him. People hiss at him in restaurants. At one popular eatery, his portrait has been removed from the wall.

Back when Edwards was gorging on hubris and inhaling the heady vapors of fame, he told the voters: "Character, conviction, good judgment. I’m happy to have people judge me on that basis."

We didn’t need a federal trial to help us render that particular verdict.

Contact Dick Polman at dickpolman7@gmail.com or follow on Twitter @dickpolman1.

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