John Edwards married his college sweetheart, Elizabeth, in 1977. They had four children together and endured their share of hardship. Their oldest son was killed in a car crash in 1996 at age 17, and Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Edwards served as a U.S. Senator from the state of North Carolina before two unsuccessful runs for president – in 2004 and 2008. In his 2004 bid, he was selected as the VP running mate by Democratic nominee John Kerry (who subsequently lost to incumbent George H. W. Bush). He came from a middle-class home in the south and although he had made millions as a high-profile litigator, many supporters in the rural, blue collar demographic still felt he could strongly identify with them. He and his wife seemed like the all-American family. Unfortunately, Edwards had some skeletons in his closet, and there’s nothing like a run for office to uncover your deepest, darkest secrets before a watching world. In 2007, The National Enquirer began reporting that Edwards was having an affair with a former campaign worker, and in mid-2008, he was filmed visiting the woman and his alleged “love child” at a hotel in Beverly Hills. He initially denied the allegations altogether, but then in August 2008, he confessed to the affair while adamantly protesting any connection to the woman’s child. Another campaign worker, Andrew Young, claimed that he – not Edwards – was the father of the child. The exact details get muddled here, but Young later recanted stating that Edwards had begged and paid him to take responsibility for the child. Young accused Edwards of orchestrating the entire cover up and cited voicemails left by Edwards to his mistress, in which he promised to marry her after Elizabeth died and asked her to have a doctor fake a DNA test. In early 2010, Edwards finally issued a press release admitting that he was the illegitimate child’s father. His lovely, faithful wife of 33 years filed for separation, and less than a year later in December 2010, she lost her battle with breast cancer. He was indicted in 2011 on six counts of improperly accepting and abusing campaign finances, and yesterday received verdicts of “not guilty” and “mistrial” on the charges.
If you are anything like me, you’d like to spit in John Edwards’ face. He’s a liar, a cheater, a scumbag; he’s a monster. His wife was dying of cancer while he was sleeping around, planning his next marriage and buying people off in every direction. And sadly, we don’t have to delve far into recent history to find other appalling examples like this one. It would be easy to conclude that there is no hope for humanity, especially those with fame or power or money. It’s also easy to mentally contrast ourselves with the monsters like Edwards, and to feel a bit better about our own morality. But I wonder: when John was a little boy, did he aspire to be an adulterer and to drive a sick wife to her grave? Of course not! Yet when we view the totality of the circumstances, we simply cannot imagine how a decent man could do such horrible things. I contend that Edwards – for the rest of his life – will wonder how it all went so wrong.
The prostitutes on the street begin as misguided teens, runaways looking for a brighter future, or unwed young mothers trying to pay rent. Somehow, a rough decade later, they no longer even recognize themselves. When we hear of a shocking scandal, we usually get the big picture at the end where hindsight is 20/20, but these debacles are products of a series of individual bad decisions which, over time, stack up to a teetering tower of deceit and immorality. At each juncture, the builder has a choice: tear down the tower or add another stone. It would appear that to continue stacking, the builder must be becoming more depraved by the minute. But the builder doesn’t need to be evil; he only needs to be weak. And with every stone, the cost and consequence of honesty grows exponentially until he’ll do the unthinkable just to avoid its destruction. Tangled webs, indeed.
John Edwards will not be serving prison time for breaking any laws, but he has in no way escaped unscathed. He has obliterated his reputation. He has a four-year old daughter who will always know that her daddy denied she was his. He has an estranged mistress with whom he will probably not reconcile. He has shattered the trust of his children. He has caused friends and confidants to violate their own consciences on his behalf. And he broke the heart of his dedicated wife and will never have the chance to make amends. He may go on to write a book or even return to practicing law. He may recover his wealth and possibly repair his reputation. He may seemingly rise from the ashes of this whole ordeal, and I hope he finds sincere repentance that his soul may be spared. But what might he give to turn back the clock and resist the playful flirting with a pretty campaign worker? There’s a contemporary Christian song with this refrain: “It’s a slow fade, when you give yourself away…thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid – when you give yourself away: people never crumble in a day…” By his choices, one by one, he slowly gave himself away until there was nothing he could do to fix the damage. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that John Edwards was born an unethical, malicious, conniving monster. More importantly, don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that this couldn’t happen to you.