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The dividing line on John Edwards

So here, again, are two Americas.

In one of them, John Edwards is little more than a late-night TV punch line.

But in the other America, inhabited by North Carolinians like Claude Neville, the philandering politician and his beleaguered family are not celebrity abstractions, but flesh-and-blood neighbors.

“If I see him again I’ll speak nice,” said Neville, who lives around the corner from Edwards’ secluded, $6.7-million compound. “The Bible says you’re supposed to forgive.”

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Edwards famously spoke of two Americas when denouncing the divide between rich and poor. Here in North Carolina there’s a different divide -- those willing to forgive and those who remain angry at Edwards, 56, for cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and putting the Democratic Party’s 2008 aspirations at risk. James Protzman, a local liberal blogger and acquaintance of John Edwards’, noted another sentiment: “A lot of people have been saying, ‘Can we please move on?’ ”

That seems unlikely.

The National Enquirer and others have reported that a federal grand jury in Raleigh, the state capital, has convened to weigh whether campaign laws were violated when wealthy Edwards supporters made payments to his lover, Rielle Hunter, to keep her out of the spotlight. The New York Times last month reported that Edwards is considering admitting that he is the father of Hunter’s young daughter, which he has repeatedly denied. The paper also reported that Hunter and the child may be moving to Wilmington, N.C., where the Edwardses have another house.

Neville, 60, a retired firefighter, has kept up with the news, and it has been a letdown. He’s a conservative, but his neighborly meetings with Edwards sold him on the handsome politician. He hasn’t seen Edwards since at least 2008, when Edwards admitted to his affair with Hunter, a videographer who worked on his presidential campaign.

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Now, Neville said, he feels “betrayed.”

“I guess that’s the way a lot of people in the neighborhood feel,” he said.

Before the sex scandal, there was no North Carolina family quite like the Edwardses, and there is no family quite like them now. No other family, it seems, has been so blessed and so cursed, so loved and shunned. He was the mill town boy made good, with a blazing intellect that helped him become the state’s most dominant trial lawyer.

Some here credit Elizabeth Edwards with ironing out his rough country edges and grooming him for the enviable life they would build together in Country Club Hills, one of Raleigh’s toniest neighborhoods.

The idyllic picture would crack in 1996, when their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car accident.

Two years later, John Edwards, seeking a higher purpose, triumphed in an out-of-nowhere campaign for the Senate. In 2004, he lost a bid for vice president as running mate to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass). Then Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with cancer.

And now, this: a betrayal, and an increasingly messy one, eliciting both fascination and revulsion among the locals -- that is, if they’ve still got a stomach for the prurience.

“It’s icky,” said Lisa Sorg, editor of Independent Weekly, an alternative publication in Raleigh, who has been following the details from afar.

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Protzman, the blogger, likened it to a car accident too grisly to look at. “I haven’t looked at the wreck -- it’s irrelevant. It’s sad,” he said.

Said Gary Pearce, a former strategist for Edwards’ successful Senate run, “A lot of people who didn’t like him said, ‘I told you so.’ And most of the people who were with him have fallen away out of disgust and disappointment.”

The feelings of betrayal are particularly strong here in Chapel Hill, the famously liberal college town where the family moved after Edwards left the Senate in 2005. In some quarters, John and Elizabeth are both being blamed for pressing ahead with his presidential run despite their shared knowledge of the affair: If Edwards had secured the Democratic nomination, such critics say, the revelation might have meant Republican victory.

Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of social awkwardness, the Edwardses continue to manage their lives and their image here.

Much of that life is hidden behind the dense trees and No Trespassing signs on their property west of downtown Chapel Hill, where they live with their two school-age children, Emma Claire and Jack. (Cate, the oldest surviving child, graduated last year from Harvard Law School.)

In June, local columnist Hal Crowther spotted the family having a peaceful, unremarkable meal at Aki Hana, the sushi restaurant owned by Crowther’s family. But on another occasion, he heard that the mood among patrons was icy.

Crowther noted that two Edwards dramas are unfolding. The 60-year-old Elizabeth, he said, remains “extremely popular” in town. In May, she released a 224-page self-help book and memoir, “Resilience,” in which she described her spreading cancer and her husband’s admission of the affair. She wrote that she was trying to “make room” for her husband to “earn the trust that he squandered.”

Last month, she discussed the book at a yearly literary festival at the University of North Carolina here, where both she and her husband earned their law degrees.

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In August, she opened a 700-square-foot furniture store, Red Window, downtown. In the book, she said it was an attempt to gain a little independence. “In this world, I am not John’s wife,” she wrote. “My name is not in a tabloid. I am Elizabeth buying for a small store in Chapel Hill.”

Local TV news footage of the opening showed Elizabeth at the store with her husband and daughter in tow. The correspondent spoke of the grand jury investigation and the National Enquirer stories. “Tabloid news is tabloid news,” she told them.

John Edwards smiled for his interview, seemingly unflappable in a blue T-shirt.

“Well, I do more moving furniture around than anything else,” he said. “You know, it’s Elizabeth’s deal, but, we, everybody in our family’s trying to help her.”

The fall of John Edwards is occurring in a rare kind of political vacuum. Edwards’ first political race -- his only successful one -- was for the Senate, so he never established a broad base of support by holding local offices.

As a result, said Tom Fetzer, chairman of the state Republican Party, Edwards is now “irrelevant” to North Carolina politics. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, he said, his party will probably focus its attention on Democratic scandals closer to home -- such as an ongoing corruption investigation of former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat.

In Chapel Hill, there are few remaining hints of the national movement that candidate Edwards tried to build from here. The former national campaign office, located in a shopping center, is now occupied by a UNC dermatology clinic.

At UNC’s law school, second-year student Jonathan Jones said he couldn’t imagine what Edwards would do from here.

“I’ve wondered a couple of times if he could come back to the school,” said Jones, 31. “But even going back and being a law professor, there’s a certain aspect of being a public figure, and I don’t know if he could weather it.”

The law school boasts one enduring legacy of Edwards’ ascent: the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Edwards co-founded the center and served as its director for nearly two years, between the time he ended his Senate term and the launch of his second presidential campaign, in December 2006.

With a small staff and student volunteers, the center continues its work unabated by scandal. It is currently trying to persuade state lawmakers to establish a system of civil representation for the poor in matters such as child custody and foreclosure proceedings.

“There’s a very redemptive piece here,” said Jack Boger, the dean of the law school.

“Maybe ‘redemptive’ is a bit too strong a word for it. But unless the issue of poverty is solved any time soon, this is going to be a long-term part of the work we do here at the university.”

The dean, who received a divinity degree in 1971, said Edwards’ personal tragedy reminded him of a certain passage from the Book of Psalms. He pulled down a Bible from his office shelf, opened it to the 22nd Psalm and pointed out the line: “I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.”

No, no, Boger said. On second thought, that was not the one he was thinking of.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com


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