The more I read about John Edwards' shenanigans during the 2008 presidential campaign, the more I'm convinced he is a mirror-gazing, fork-tongued, tramp-chasing weasel. But the more I read about the federal case against him, the more sure I am that he does not deserve to go to jail.
The trial to determine if Mr. Edwards broke campaign finance laws has begun, and it promises to be as lurid and titillating as Ken Starr's vivid account of President Bill Clinton's fling with Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, is likely to take the stand. Expect her to add juicy details about how she and Mr. Edwards conducted a transcontinental affair right under the noses of the candidate's cancer-stricken wife and the entire national press corps.
Already, we have heard several days of testimony from former Edwards aide Andrew Young. Repeating the story he had already spilled in a tell-all book, Mr. Young told how he found rich donors to pony up more than $900,000 to pay for Rielle's house, BMW and silence. Aiming to hit a big payday by loyally clinging to Mr. Edwards' coattails, Mr. Young funneled the hush money through his wife's checking account while claiming it was he, not Mr. Edwards, who fathered Rielle's baby.
Mr. Young's sometimes shaky testimony was pounced upon by the Edwards defense team. They contend Mr. Young did much of the dirty work on his own and that a big chunk of the money went to pay for his $1.5 million house. Whatever the truth may be, one thing that seems reasonably clear is that Messrs. Edwards and Young are both conniving creeps.
There seems to be no doubt that Mr. Edwards intended to keep his affair and his love child secret from his wife and from the American public, and that he enlisted Mr. Young to help in the cover up. But adultery, mendacity and generally loathsome behavior are not enough to warrant 30 years in jail. That, and a $1.5 million fine are the maximum penalty Mr. Edwards faces if federal prosecutors win this case.
Guilt and innocence turn on one question: Was the money that Mr. Edwards used to keep Rielle Hunter in quiet comfort a campaign contribution? Mr. Edwards says no; the cash came as gifts from rich friends who wanted to help him deal with a private indiscretion. The feds say yes; the money was intended to cover up an affair that would have sunk Mr. Edwards' campaign for the White House, thus making it a campaign donation.
Legal experts are split on this point. Even prominent advocates of campaign finance reform say the law is murky and the federal prosecutors are engaging in overkill.
Past rulings by the Federal Elections Commission are a poor guide. In situations similar to the Edwards case, the FEC has ruled both ways.
One thing is sure: No one has been sent to jail for 30 years for doing what Mr. Edwards may have done. A big, fat fine may be justified, but demanding more than that for violating ever-shifting campaign finance rules is draconian. Given how campaign finance laws have evolved over the last four years, the penalty seems even more absurd. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, corporations are now "people" and they are free to donate unlimited amounts of money to super PACs that "independently" promote candidates for president.
A corporate super PAC would have come in handy in 2008 when Edwards was trying to hide his girlfriend from his dying wife.
John Edwards deserves scorn. He deserves his ruined reputation. On the scale of philandering politicians, he is pretty much rock bottom. Higher up that scale, however, Bill Clinton carries on as an admired and popular senior statesman. Former, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has been rehabilitated as a TV commentator. Louisiana's Sen. David Vitter remains in the United States Senate.
John Edwards brought this on himself, but his narcissism and moral failings do not warrant prison time. Better to banish him to the backwoods of North Carolina, up a long dirt road, a hundred miles from the nearest hair stylist.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times