Edwards’ issue: Public vs. private

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 6, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) ó The legal case against two-time presidential candidate John Edwards focuses on where to draw the line between the public and private in a politicianís life, a divide he riskily straddled throughout his entire career and family life.
Edwards isnít alone. The private activities and concerns of public officials increasingly seem to be pulled or pushed into the public arena. Is that Rep. Anthony Weiner modeling his underwear? Donald Trump and Sarah Palin use a knife and fork to eat pizza! Which school did President Barack Obama pick to go all the way in college hoops?
These things donít reveal much about their qualifications to lead, yet they fascinate Americans.
Edwards, a millworkerís son, was a master at honing an image of his private life for public consumption.
There was much to draw the public to Edwards and his family that seemed so full of youthful vibrancy. He had a whip-smart wife who was at least his equal in political talent and a daughter getting her Ivy League education. The tow-headed youngest daughter and son coaxed smiles out of voters and even from the journalists invited to board the familyís campaign bus, eat their snacks and join their sing-alongs. The way that the Edwardses dealt with their son Wadeís death in an auto accident won sympathy.
But from the start, there were ruses. Edwardsí chief criminal accuser, former aide Andrew Young, writes in his book how Edwards would drive a beat-up Buick Park Avenue while on campaign business, stashing his BMW and Lexus to keep up the ěeverymanî image.
Now the central dispute over his indictment on felony charges is whether money that two of his supporters spent to keep his mistress in hiding were campaign contributions that should have been reported publicly, as prosecutors say, or private gifts from friends, as Edwardsí lawyers claim.
Edwardsí team says the payments were to keep the affair a secret from hurting his cancer-stricken wife. The government alleges they were a scheme to keep the child conceived by Edwards and Rielle Hunter a secret from the public to protect his White House ambitions.
ěA centerpiece of Edwardsí candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man,î the indictment of Edwards says. ěThe communication strategy developed by Edwardsí campaign stressed the importance of publicizing, among other things, ëthat (Edwardsí) family comes first.íî
That is a reference to the communications plan Edwardsí advisers wrote in advance of the 2008 nominating race, when the former North Carolina senator was coming off a losing race as vice presidential nominee to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the 2004 ticket.
The undated document, turned over to prosecutors and provided to the Associated Press by a person involved in the investigation, stressed that ěJREî ó the initials Edwardsí staffers often used to refer to him ó had a unique chance to show Americans how he ěshares their everyday values.î
ěJRE is a household name, and we have a remarkable opportunity to give voters a richer understanding of just who John Edwards is ó the man, not the politician,î the plan said. President George W. Bush ěof course, has done a tremendous job in this regard ó in 2000, among many other things, people knew he liked to clear brush, that he loved baseball, that he loved his wife, and that he had overcome personal adversity. ě
It recommended that Edwards use every chance to attend activities with his family, such as going to a theme park, rodeo or high school football games. ěThese do not need to be advertised to the press,î it said. ěWord will get out on its own. And hearing about things like this from your friend or neighbor is much more powerful than a staged photo-op on the 6 p.m. news. We should do this AS OFTEN as possible.î
It also suggested that a book by his wife, Elizabeth, would help the effort. She ended up writing ěSaving Graces,î published in September 2006. That book and a second published after her husbandís campaign was over and his philandering exposed endeared her to many as a woman of strength who gracefully dealt with hardships, even the cancer that would kill her. Meanwhile, campaign operatives whispered behind the scenes that Elizabeth could often be cruel and demanding.
While the campaign communications plan stressed Edwardsí devotion to family and Elizabeth, he was secretly spending time in the lead-up to the campaign with his videographer.
ěIn the same way that so many know that JRE is the son of a mill worker and the first person in his family to go to college (which we cannot repeat enough), we need people to know:
ěó that his family comes first,
ěó that he and Elizabeth have overcome tremendous challenges and adversity,
ěó that faith has been an important part of his life,
ěó what his friends think about him, and
ěó what he likes to do for fun.î
Even disregarding the National Enquirer reports during the campaign about Edwardsí affair, which he denied, there were other signs the public image of his private life was not as it seemed.
While Edwardsí campaigned on a fight against poverty and the ěTwo Americasî of the haves and have-nots, it was disclosed that he was getting $400 haircuts, building a 28,000-square-foot home and consulting work for a hedge fund that catered to the wealthy.
Edwardsí lies eventually alienated most of his one-time supporters and advisers and demolished his political career. Now he really does have more time for family, and even now it is still part of his public image.
As he left federal court Friday in a crush of media photographers, his daughter Cate was by his side.