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Edwards jury to start deliberating Friday

Published: Friday, May 18, 2012

Updated: Friday, May 18, 2012 12:05

 

ATLANTA — A jury Friday will begin deliberating on whether John Edwards is guilty of breaking campaign finance law.

“There are some people who ought to be taken out from a courthouse, tied to an oak tree and just whipped,” said former governor and one-time supporter Roy Barnes. “I think he fits into that category.”

Barnes was among prominent Georgia Democrats who put their faith and their wallets behind Edwards’ 2008 presidential candidacy. Touted as “the next Kennedy,” Edwards was attractive and articulate. He came from humble beginnings and spoke out for the underclass and against the widening gap between the “two Americas.”

“I considered him to be a real champion for things we believed,” said Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, former Democratic state representative who donated $2,300 to the Edwards campaign. “How hypocritical, to be the champion of the common guy and you’re getting a $400 haircut and spending money on your mistress.”

Benfield was so annoyed that she tried to get her money back. (She was told by a campaign manager that the cash was gone.)
“Somebody suggested we get a class action lawsuit,” said trial lawyer and former Edwards supporter Lester Tate. But Tate doubted the tactic would work. “We bet on a losing horse.”

Edwards is now at the end of a monthlong federal trial on charges that he illegally funneled campaign contributions to his mistress, Rielle Hunter. Prosecutors say his aim was to safeguard his presidential chances by hiding the fact that Hunter was carrying his child while his wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer. The defense says donors gave the money as personal gifts rather than campaign contributions.

Edwards went on ABC News in 2008 to admit the affair but deny that he was the father of the child. He allowed his campaign aide, Andrew Young, to falsely claim paternity.

Edwards finally admitted the child was his early in 2010, and his wife set in motion divorce proceedings. She died late that year.

To his followers, John Edwards might as well have smuggled a bomb into a crowded pre-school.

Most were, to start with, astonished that Edwards was able to hide his secret life. “Listen, I knew this guy for years, I knew him before he was in the Senate,” said Barnes. “I traveled with him, and never did I have an inkling of that. Never. I was fooled, like the rest of the public.”

Next came chagrin that a colleague would put his own interests so far above those of his staff, his constituents and his party. Tate, like Edwards, is the son of a small-town millworker. He felt a strong connection to the Edwards story. In his words, he “drank the Kool Aid.”

For that reason the betrayal seemed almost personal. “It was a fraud on people that believed in him, that gave him money, that were working hard to see him elected president of the United States, and it was pretty reprehensible.”

Atlanta psychologist Richard Blue likens that feeling to the anger inspired by a false-hearted lover. “Love pain is one of the hardest, most difficult things to get rid of,” said Blue, who also gave to the Edwards campaign.

He was talked into it by his sister, Lisa Blue. She’s the widow of Texas millionaire litigator Fred Baron, who was Edwards’ finance chairman in his 2004 run and was also heavily involved in his 2008 campaign.

Baron gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to help relocate Hunter to California and keep her invisible to the press, according to testimony. Suffering from bone marrow cancer, Baron never turned against Edwards, said Richard Blue. “He was the loyal person, to the end.”

While the Sandy Springs psychologist doesn’t defend Edwards’ behavior, he would rather comprehend than condemn. Many other politicians, he noted, share similar character flaws. “Like a William Jefferson Clinton, (Edwards had) that narcissistic self-centered-ness, that he could do no wrong, that he couldn’t get caught.”

Edwards faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of the six charges. Banishment from public office seems all but certain, even if jurors acquit him.

At one point Edwards’ approval numbers were at 3 percent, according to a CBS News poll. Considering the poll’s margin of error, that result was equivalent to zero.

But not all his former supporters, even the angry ones, think Edwards is down for the count. Said Tate: “Once politics is in your blood, the only cure for it is antifreeze.”

Thomas Malone, a fellow litigator who hosted an Edwards fund-raiser early in the 2008 Georgia campaign, said there have been other unlikely second acts in politics — just look at confessed adulterer New Gingrich. “If Newt can find the Lord, then maybe there’s a place for John in politics,” said Malone. “But he need not seek a contribution from me.”

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