How Low Can He Go?

John Edwards comes dirty clean.

By 1.22.10

RALEIGH -- Whatever remaining scraps of political ambition John Edwards had died yesterday when he admitted to fathering his former mistress's child, Frances Quinn. In a statement submitted to NBC News, Edwards said it was wrong for him to deny paternity and "hopefully one day, when she understands, she will forgive me."

The statement, not surprisingly, is in direct contradiction to what Edwards, a former North Carolina senator and vice-presidential candidate, told ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff in August 2008. During the interview, Edwards admitted to an extra-marital affair with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter but denied allegations that her child was his.

"That is absolutely not true," Edwards said, and then feigned interest in a paternity test to prove it. Also not surprisingly, the paternity test never happened.

On Thursday, Edwards finally came clean and admitted what most suspected from the beginning. In the meantime, he's fled the country to help with recovery efforts in Haiti. That doesn't change the mess that he's left behind -- his tarnished name, family, and political legacy.

Edwards had no chance of attaining political office again before the new revelation hit. Now he really has no chance. No political quarter -- not even his base of populist supporters -- is willing to give him relief, and opinion polls bear that out.

Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning survey group in North Carolina, reported Jan. 19 that Edwards, already a record-holder for most unpopular person, had hit a new low of 15 percent approval compared to 72 percent disapproval. With this latest admission, it's not unreasonable to guess Edwards' approval numbers are in the single digits.

Even George W. Bush couldn't top that.

A significant remaining question is whether Edwards would have fessed up had his former aide, Andrew Young, not agreed to write a tell-all exposé on the former presidential candidate. Young was the campaign staffer who initially took the rap and claimed Hunters baby as his own.

Young's forthcoming book, to be released in early February, will doubtless contain lurid details about Edwards' misdeeds. Was Edwards heading that off by admitting paternity early? That would be in line with the Clinton ethic of remorse for getting caught, not for the sin. We'll see.

Beyond the many questions that have yet to be answered, the lessons of the Edwards scandal are legion. A big one: when political analysts say that a year in politics is an eternity, they really mean it.

In 2004, Edwards was the Democrats' populist golden boy. He could do no wrong. Despite revelations of huge houses and heftily priced haircuts, Edwards maintained popularity in the party. He came surprisingly close to the White House.

But just a few years later, he is the most despised politician in America, even by liberals. Elected officials -- particularly the one who currently occupies the White House -- would do well to remember that lesson. Voters can turn fast, and adultery needn't always be in the mix.

Another lesson is the mainstream medias utter lack of interest in covering legitimate scandals involving Democratic politicians. Edwards' fall from grace was a slow-motion implosion that lasted much longer than it should have, had the press functioned in its watchdog capacity. Instead, a trashy tabloid using unnamed sources out-scooped them all.

As if to spit once more in the eye of the mainstream press, the National Enquirer plans to submit its coverage of the Edwards scandal for a Pulitzer. The scary thing, at least for mainstream media outlets in their death throes, is that the tabloid deserves it.

Political implications aside, the Edwards scandal is a monumental tragedy for his family and close friends. No one doubts that. Although Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, isn't as saintly as commonly believed, her struggle with breast-cancer with a cheating husband should elicit nothing but sympathy.

And Edwards' young children -- Frances Quinn and his two by Elizabeth -- should be pitied that they'll grow up in the shadow of their father's sins.

It's doubtful the news value of this story will die anytime soon, but Edwards' focus should be elsewhere. He should get out of the public spotlight and pick up the pieces of his life that remain.

Given his conduct so far, though, bets are that he won't.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.