Edwards trial draws an international audience

mquillin@newsobserver.com May 2, 2012 

Only about 60 people can squeeze into Courtroom 1 of the Federal Courthouse in Greensboro, where former Sen. John Edwards is on trial, but the drama of his political life is playing out before a worldwide media audience.

Tawdry as a television soap opera, complicated as a Shakespearean play, the story of what Edwards and his closest confidantes did with nearly $1 million of supporters’ money is being followed by print, television, radio and online news outlets across the county and beyond.

Edwards has been referred to as “political roadkill” on the Middle Eastern TV network Al Jazeera. Agence France-Presse has detailed the allegations against him. In the eurozone, the money at the center of the government’s case against him has been converted from dollars to the shared currency.

The man who worked so hard to make sure his name was known around the country is now known around the globe.

“Sex, power and melodrama,” said Bill Cloud, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Journalism, sizing up what gives the story its appeal. “We have the handsome, fallen young prince. We have his wife and the drama of her untimely death. There is a real soap-opera aspect to this whole affair, and people are drawn to that.

“He is someone who was rich and powerful and very ambitious, and I don’t want to say he’s getting his comeuppance, but he certainly has fallen. He had a meteoric rise, and meteoric fall.”

What landed Edwards in federal court is the government’s contention that he took illegal campaign contributions in the form of the money used to pamper and conceal his mistress, freelance videographer Rielle Hunter, in 2007 and 2008 while she was pregnant with Edwards’ child, and after the girl was born. At the time, Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, was struggling with terminal cancer, and Edwards was campaigning as a family man and champion of the poor.

The government argues the donors helped hide Hunter because the affair would derail Edwards’ candidacy for president, so the funds were political donations, subject to strict limits which they far exceeded.

Policy, heartache, betrayal

Richard L. Hasen, a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, has written about the legal issues of the case on his Election Law Blog, electionlawblog.org. The case is interesting because it’s one of government’s first attempts to test the uncertainty of campaign finance rules before a jury, Hasen said; if it results in a conviction, it could affect the way politicians and their supporters handle money and could discourage people from supporting candidates for fear of getting caught up in a criminal case down the road.

But that’s not why people are following it, he said.

“The reason this case is attracting so much attention is that it involves not only a former presidential candidate – someone who’s well known – but it involves all these salacious details. Sex and politics.

“And the fall from grace is something that people want to see, the way they crane their necks looking at an accident on the freeway.

“And,” Hasen adds, “I think that John Edwards is pretty much universally hated character for what he did.”

A sense of betrayal permeates the story: between lovers and spouses, between friends, and extending to an amorphous but once enthusiastic group of believers who thought John Edwards was the genuine article and would work to get him elected to the nation’s highest office.

“There certainly is a large body of people who started out as John Edwards admirers who were shocked when these revelations occurred,” said Cloud. “Here was this guy we really admired and liked and all of a sudden we find out he has feet of clay.”

Politicians’ peccadilloes

James Protzman, a self-described liberal blogger and a founder of the group blog BlueNC, www.bluenc.com, thinks the press is more interested in the Edwards story than the general public is.

“Media love a good, old-fashioned fall from grace, especially when it’s a rich, handsome, liberal lawyer,” Protzman said.

The media largely stayed away from the story of Edwards’ affair until the National Enquirer got photos of Edwards with the baby in October 2008, but has been all over it since. Cloud, at UNC, says it should be.

“If it was all just about campaign finance law, the press would be doing its duty to cover it, but nobody would be reading it,” he said. “But with all these other aspects, people want to read about it. And I think you can argue that the public needs to know about the behavior of people who want to be political leaders.

“Reporters used to sort of turn a blind eye to politicians’ peccadilloes. We don’t do that anymore.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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