The Justification of John Edwards

Yesterday, in a sleepy little courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, the most prominent American politician to face criminal charges since Richard Nixon went to trial.  John Edwards, 2004 Democratic nominee for Vice-President, stands accused of allegedly funneling almost a million dollars to his mistress to conceal their affair and her pregnancy during the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary.

As a lawyer, I am ashamed to admit that when I first heard about two of Edwards’ elderly supporters paying huge sums to his mistress to keep her quiet, it didn’t even occur to me that this activity was, in any way, illegal.  Normally, in these little arrangements, if there are any charges to be brought they are brought against the mistress for extortion.  But, as it turns out, if Edwards’ supporters paid this money to his mistress to protect or further his presidential campaign, then their donations greatly exceeded the contribution limits for individual donors — and, therefore, Edwards is criminally liable for accepting them and failing to report them.

His defense of these charges is predicated on him arguing that these payments were private favors done for Edwards, the father and husband, and not Edwards, the politician.  He must establish that the money was given because of his supporters’ concern about the negative impact that these revelations would have on his terminally ill wife and young children — not the deleterious impact they would have on his campaign.  This may prove difficult to establish.  But he has a great incentive to do so —  a guilty verdict comes with great personal consequences — he is facing up to 30 years in prison  and a $1,5oo,ooo fine.  But swirling around the issue of his guilt or innocence, an issue on which I do not care to speculate, is a deeper, more interesting issue to me — the utter lack of interest by the American public in such a brazen case of a serious presidential candidate allowing his end to justify his means.

I can only assume that fifty years ago this trial and Edwards’ actions would have been a pretty big deal — I am thinking Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow might have even shared a travel trailer for a few days outside the courthouse to cover this one.   Today, it feels like the story slides meekly between Ron Artest’s ironic name change and Christina Aguilera’s snub of Justin Bieber on the cultural-importance meter.  To further put its significance in cultural context, the start of his trial didn’t even merit a mention on The Daily Show, yesterday.

I am not sure exactly why we care so very little about the subject matter of this trial, but I am pretty sure that it is not a positive reflection on the esteem with which we hold our politicians and our political process.  Based on the way politicians are portrayed in books, movies, television dramas, and the way they seem to act in real life — every campaign has to pay off someone for something.  Sadly, Edwards’ actions seemed to be business as usual.  And so, his actions, and subsequent cover-up, have barely raised the pulse of the average American.  We are, to put it mildly, immune to feeling sickness over politicians choosing to let their end justify their means.  But I fear that our lack of response is more than a sign of indifference.  I fear that most Americans affirmatively believe that if a person has the right political goals, he is allowed a great deal of moral, ethical, and legal latitude in how he achieves them.  I am certain that many who believed Edwards to be the best candidate for President were more than willing to overlook his moral failings and the pay off of his mistress — and would have written a check themselves to aid in the effort if presented with the chance.

And so, the tale of John Edwards is not simply a tale of his personal fall from grace nor of his potential criminal liability.  Rather, his tale is a cautionary tale of what will mark our political process if we blindly indulge political justifications that align with our own self-interest.  That John Edwards cheated on his terminally-ill wife and fathered a child with his mistress is not particularly noteworthy — lamentable yes, but not noteworthy.  That he purportedly convinced his friends and supporters to cover it up so that he would not have to endure the political consequences of his actions is.  It is alleged that he convinced campaign staffers, friends, and at least one sweet old lady that a cover-up of his misdeeds was justified because he would be a President worth lying for, worth hurting others for, and worth breaking the law for.

Sadly, these ideas no longer make us shudder.  Sadly, these rules have become our rules for politics.  We will say anything about our political opponents, attack and slander them in the most hurtful and vile ways that we can imagine, and make any excuse for the terrible actions of those who share our own political affiliation.  When Edwards cheats on his dying wife, he is a monster that Republicans tell their children about to warn them of the moral depravity of liberalism.  When Newt Gingrich cheats on his dying wife, he is a cruel beast that Democrats tell their children about to warn them of the cold, callousness of conservatism.

The misplaced justification of our words and deeds pervades so many areas of our life — we justify our excuses, our cover-ups, our failures, our cruelty, our lies — all because we have convinced ourselves that our end goals are worth achieving by any means necessary.   The truth is that our assent to moral justification does not exist only in our political lives.  It starts in our own hearts. In our own lives, we want the end to justify the means.  We need the end to justify the means.  We need to always find a greater cause that justifies our avoiding consequences for our own actions — some appeal to the good work that we could do if only we had the chance or the second chance.

I would like to condemn this mentality from a place of pious indignation, but I can’t.  Because I have certainly borrowed its mantra in my own life many times.  The personal cycle is easy to identify:  make a mistake, assess the consequence, determine whether honesty is worth the punishment associated with your mistake — if it is, you freely confess your error — if it is not, you find a way to convince yourself that the harm done from honesty — to your victims, your future, your noble goals — outweighs its benefits.  You convince yourself that it would be selfish to be honest and accept your punishment.  And normally, if you are like me, this internal argument is won with little resistance from your better nature.

Sorry, back to Edwards.

In 2010, a few days before his estranged wife, Elizabeth, succumbed to breast cancer, Edwards moved back into his house to be with his dying wife and his children.  In that moment, he was no longer the slick, silver-tongued lawyer and politician who had charmed so many with his moderate and populist message.  He had fallen at his own hand.  Despite his best efforts to cover up his moral failings, by this time, his wife and children knew the entire sordid story.  Yet, even though he had wounded her deeply, his wife offered him the grace of permitting him to come home to be with his family during those last days.  Despite his betrayal, she still called him family.

I wonder what her simple act of grace produced in his soul during these days.  Did he despair at the pain he had caused?  Did he feel remorse for his hubris that had destroyed his family and his reputation?  Did he regain some lost portion of his soul that his political life had demanded as payment for his success?  I can’t help but hope that his wife’s compassionate kindness in those last days formed in him some bulwark of grace that will shape the rest of his life.

I don’t know if he is guilty of what he is accused of.  I don’t know if he deserves to be convicted.  But I do think the trial will give us a glimpse into whether John Edwards was touched by his dying wife’s grace or whether he still thinks that everything in his life is a political game to be manipulated and won.  I am hopeful, but not expectant of reformation — I realize that after you go that far down an amoral rabbit hole, it is awfully hard to rediscover your convictions.

If he has chosen to renounce his allegiance to expediency of “the end justifying his means,” he has picked a particularly cruel crucible in which to demonstrate his return to moral certitude.  The price that honesty may require him to pay at trial is quite high.  And there are plenty of good justifications for winning an acquittal by any means necessary which are readily available to him.  Even though he no longer has presidential aspirations, he has plenty of fodder for justification at his disposal — his children’s legitimate need for a father, his own good works that he is involved in, his need to earn a living, his desire to be better if given a second chance.  These all have a power to them.  And so I suspect that he will say anything, attack anyone, and manipulate any fact to be found not guilty at trial.  I cannot condemn him for this course.  It would be the course that I personally would desperately want to take.

Maybe, however, there will be a moment of clarity brought on by his late wife’s grace that causes him to want to leave a lasting, abiding impact on the future of American politics — even if it means jail time for him.  Maybe, he will summon the courage to be honest about his motivations and actions during the 2008 primary, whatever those motivations may have been, in order to demonstrate to us all that there is a place of honor for honesty in our political process.  And, maybe, he will leave a legacy for all of us who will care enough to listen, that no political end is worth sacrificing your love, your honesty, your kindness, your soul, to achieve.

About David Davies, Editor-in-Chief

David Davies is the Editor-in-Chief of Media Rostra. He is also a lawyer and a licensed minister, so he is basically distrusted by everyone on some level. He received his Political Science degree from the University of Tulsa and his Juris Doctor from the University of Arkansas. He is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Arkansas, a former "good athlete for his size," and current owner of The Law Offices of David Davies, PLLC -- an Estate Planning and Elder Law firm that has offices in Arkansas and Tennessee. He co-authored, with fellow editor, Aaron Brooks, the article entitled: “Exploring Student-Athlete Compensation: Why the NCAA Cannot Afford to Leave Athletes Uncompensated," in the University of Notre Dame’s Journal of College and University Law.


  1. Christopher BurksNo Gravatar says:

    Great article David!  There are certainly lots of fascinating details to watch for in the ongoing federal trial.  As some who once worked for his campaign, I’m definitely interested in the process. 

    I do think the death of John Edwards’ good friend and Finance Director Fred Baron significantly impacts how many details that bear on the use for the money will fully come out in testimony.  Not that Courtrooms are always a place for truth, but, in this sad saga, I think death has played a role in putting redemption and truth beyond much of what our system can obtain. 

    I guess even if Elizabeth and Fred were alive-two generous and kind people by all accounts, including in my limited interactions with them, some would be beyond us to know.  However, their presence and response would certainly be a prism for us as a society to learn and shape our response from.  Their absence makes the trial all the more tragic.