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Lessons Learned From The John Edwards Trial


After nine days of deliberations, a jury in North Carolina found John Edwards not guilty on one count of campaign finance fraud, and a federal judge declared a mistrial after they failed to reach a verdict on five more. Afterwards, the former presidential candidate said he'd committed no crimes but admitted to what he called awful wrongs for which he could only blame himself. Observers think it's highly unlikely the Justice Department will seek a retrial.

Over the weekend, any number of op-eds considered what we learned about John Edwards, about our political campaigns and about ourselves through weeks of uncomfortable testimony. Disgraced now, Edwards ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 2004 and was among the top candidates four years later. Many believed in his vision and his integrity. What lesson do you take away from the trial of John Edwards? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also weigh in on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're also going to read excerpts from several op-eds that have been published on this. And this is from Dick Pulmant(ph) in the Philadelphia Enquirer - Polman(ph), excuse me - in the Philadelphia Enquirer. Edwards' worst sin, at least in the public realm, was his hypocrisy. He touted himself as a morality candidate, the most virtuous guy in the field. His mantra was faith, family, responsibility. During a debate in October '07, he said: It is crucial for voters to determine who they can trust, who's honest, who is sincere, who has integrity.

Soon after Edwards made that pitch on stage in Philadelphia, he secretly persuaded Andrew Young, his hapless aide-acolyte, to take the fall for him, to claim, falsely, paternity of Rielle Hunter's child. If Edwards had won the '08 nomination, only to have the scandal detonate in the mainstream press - as it did that summer- he would have sunk his party. That's a big reason Democrats shun him today. As for Americans in general, they gave Edwards a three percent approval rating in a recent national poll. It takes a special kind of knave to score lower than Donald Trump.

And this is from Time magazine and Adam Cohen, and he describes the prosecution in the case as misdirected in the first place. This prosecution was a stretch from the beginning. Edwards was accused of violating campaign finance laws, but those laws are notoriously arcane. None directly addresses a candidate's or his staff's soliciting contributions to cover up a candidate's affair. It was not surprising, then, giving this murky legal landscape, at least some jurors would accept the defense's contention that the funds were gifts rather than campaign contributions, and that the campaign finance laws, therefore, did not apply.

Even before the trial began, there was criticism of the prosecutors. It's ramped up considerably since the verdict. The Justice Department's public integrity section, which spearheaded the case, had its reputation badly tarnished a few years back when it bungled a case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, whose conviction was overturned because of prosecutorial missteps. Earlier this year, a major corruption case it brought in Alabama fell apart. The mistake the Justice Department made in the Edwards prosecution was not in how it tried this case but in bringing it at all.

Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Again, it's 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And this is Frederick. Frederick with us from Santa Rosa in California.

FREDERICK: Good morning, Neal. You know, it strikes me that we've spent several weeks, approaching a month, on a politician who - the charge was he misappropriated $1 million; when three years previous to this, we lost one-third of our economy when the previous administration in Washington, through gross negligence, had no oversight of the shenanigans on Wall Street, and millions of people are suffering throughout America and Western Europe due to that crisis. And we've spent this amount of time on a $1 million gift to a politician.

CONAN: Some people say the same thing about the Roger Clemens trial.

FREDERICK: You know, it's interesting that Clemens had - yeah, yeah. That's - I think many people would consider that it would be worthy that Clemens be brought to testify on his use. I'm saying that we ought to spend an appropriate amount of resources and time to investigate the lack of oversight and regulation, when really, modern-day capitalism has to be based upon - and has been based in the past - upon appropriate and thorough regulation for the benefit of all Americans.

CONAN: Frederick, thanks very much for the call. Appropriate it.

FREDERICK: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jack, and Jack's with us from Jacksonville.

JACK: Hello. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

Yes. At the opening of the show, you posed some questions as to what it meant to various things. But the one thing that you do not mention was: What does it mean about our legal system? And I guess I'd like to answer that question, even though it wasn't asked.


JACK: And that is - the answer to the question is that if you're rich and you're powerful, you can manipulate the system and you can walk away. And that is the real moral here. So I guess what you want to do is become rich and powerful.

CONAN: What power does John Edwards have today?

JACK: Well, I think that money brings power, and I think that he still has - many people in his camp, even if they are unwilling to, you know, let the rest of the country know that.

CONAN: So they work behind scenes?

JACK: I think that what it comes down to is that if you have money, you can manipulate people. And unfortunately, a majority of people who have to deal with the legal system are not in that position.

CONAN: All right, Jack. Thanks very much. Certainly, money gives you the ability to hire good lawyers. Here's some comments, Joan Wile, at the online news site, opednews.com: I'm an elderly grandmother who supported John Edwards early on in the 2008 election, gave him a small sum of money and waited two hours to hear him speak at a local event. I have a small, vested interest in him, therefore, so feel entitled to express my opinion about his tragic fall from grace.

I don't judge Edwards' infidelity. We don't know the true relationship of any married couple. It's tempting to condemn him because of his wife's critical illness, but still, I can't go there without knowledge of the actual reality of their interaction. I can, however, judge him as being profoundly careless, even stupid.

Merle Black writing about his political future to the AP said: I think John Edwards has no political future: nada, zip. That's from the Emory University political science professor. I can't think of any Democrat in this country that would want to stand on the same stage with John Edwards.

And Alexandra Petri writing in The Washington Post said: Forget jail and fines. The vast ravening maw of public opinion in John Edwards' case will not rest until he's declared ritually unclean by everyone under the sun. We approach him with all the righteous fury of a jilted lover. For a while, he had us, and then we realized we'd been had. So whenever he walks past, we are to pelt him with garbage and cry: Shame! Shame! Lepers glimpsing him on the sidewalk must shake their heads and cross the street. Pigs must cover their faces when people try to shoehorn the two of them into pictures. We want him ruined. We want to hit him where it hurts. We want him to demonstrate remorse.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Eric, Eric on the line from St. Louis.

ERIC: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Go ahead, please.

ERIC: Yes. Yeah. The thing that I take away from this whole trial is the fact that it just seems like every - most politicians, if you're seeking that high of an office - and maybe this is an overgeneralization - but that it just seems most politicians for that high of an office are pretty full of hubris and ego and selfishness, especially the things that you can somehow get away with all of this and not let it affect, you know, like you said, the party and everything that you're trying to strive for in the first place.

But I also didn't understand how the jury couldn't come up with a decision of guilt only based upon the fact that these so-called gifts - if it was a truly gift, why hide it in the first place? And I think that - I think, if I remember correctly, some of these checks that were written were disguised as, like, what, interior design pieces or other things having nothing to do - just like a regular gift. Why not just call it what it was, which was a gift? And instead, they clearly were trying to hide something in the first place. And if you were trying to hide something and you knew that something was wrong - so I just couldn't understand why they couldn't come up with a guilty verdict on that.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Eric. And we have an op-ed on that point from the National Review, no fan of John Edwards. They write: If being a louse were a crime, then John Edwards would hang for it. They point out many weaknesses in the prosecution's case.

Campaign-finance laws, they continue, are a tricky business because they put political incumbents in charge of setting the rules under which their positions and power may be challenged. Such laws would be - should be as transparent and straightforward as possible, and prosecutions under them should be undertaken with proper care. If Edwards, et al, have committed other crimes, then they should be prosecuted. But to prosecute him under campaign-finance rules in a situation in which no campaign funds were used and no campaign expenses paid seems a stretch. We've had enough unseemliness associated with Edwards without adding a questionable prosecution to the catalog.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Schaffer(ph), Schaffer with us from Sacramento.

SCHAFFER: Hi, there. The thing that I think most about this that is sad to me is it's - I draw a line to it in my head between this and Nixon. Similar to the way Nixon devalued the presidency, I think that Edwards has devalued, sort of, the presidential candidacy. We have this idea, perhaps, that presidential candidates are a cut above in terms of some kind of integrity, at least, they stand above most politicians, other than that. And this kind of under - like, it devalues that. You know what I'm saying?

CONAN: I do know what you're saying, and it goes back to the charge of hypocrisy we read earlier, that as he was talking about integrity, the next day meeting with his aide to cover up the - his then, I guess, pregnant mistress.

SCHAFFER: Yeah. It's seamy, and it seems like it shouldn't be - it's something that's beneath that sphere. We expect that sort of thing, I guess, from - I don't know, some sort of local politician. I don't know, something like that. But when you're in the presidency, to think that a man like that was running to be a breath away from the presidency, it devalues the whole process.

CONAN: Schaffer, thanks very much for the call.

SCHAFFER: Thank you.

CONAN: We're getting your thoughts on the John Edwards trial, which concluded last week in acquittal on one count, and mistrial declared on five others. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

This from Anna in Oklahoma City, by email: I think this trial shows how a person of this stature does not have to pay the legal penalties of his crime. I do, however, feel that the scrutiny he's facing and will continue to face will be punishment all the same, and he will not recover easily from this situation.

Let's go next to Nathan, Nathan with us from Durham.

NATHAN: Hi. I just wanted to say, I'm actually a stage-four lung cancer patient in Durham, North Carolina. And I have some personal connection to this, because, you know, the situation with his wife in being a breast cancer patient. But I have to say, as much it hurts me to say, I agree with the jury on this. I mean, he's not up for doing such despicable things. He's up for - excuse me - covering up his extramarital affair. And we, unfortunately, can't put people on trial for that - I mean, put people on trial for cheating on their wives who have lung cancer - I mean, excuse me - breast cancer. But that's all. I just have to say, I agree with the jury on this.

CONAN: Did you follow the case closely, Nathan?

NATHAN: I'm sorry, what?

CONAN: Did you follow the case closely?

NATHAN: I did follow quite closely, yes.


NATHAN: Well, honestly, as - like I said, as much as it hurts to say, I really wanted to see him go to jail for cheating on his wife, who had breast cancer. I thought that was a horrible, despicable thing to do - and all the things afterwards. I mean, you have to imagine, that was incredibly embarrassing. She was on her deathbed, and then she finds out her husband cheats on her and has a new daughter by this other woman. It's extremely - I can't imagine how she felt. So that's why.

CONAN: All right, Nathan. Thanks very much for the call.

NATHAN: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: This is from Jim in Tampa: I was a huge supporter of Mr. Edwards, and I still believe in his vision. But what I learned is that we should always focus on the platform, not the man or the woman. Individual people will always let us down one way or another, and we should elect based on policy, not on personality. Let's see if we can go next to Paul, and Paul's with us from Wayne, Pennsylvania.

PAUL: Neal, hi.


PAUL: I remain a staunch supporter of John Edwards and a true believer. I believe in his politics, and I feel we need to just let John Edwards and the Edwards family move on at this point. They've suffered enough, and we're just - it - this amounts to being moralistic in continuing to have this discussion like this.

CONAN: So the legal issues are of no concern. The prosecution is no concern. Why...

PAUL: The jury has made a verdict, and they find him not guilty. So to continue to talk about this...

CONAN: Well, the Justice Department could...

PAUL: (unintelligible)

CONAN: ...still bring charges, but that's OK. All right, Paul. Thanks very much for the call.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: This is from The Salt Lake Tribune: John Edwards' political career was already over. The National Enquirer had seen to that. After the supermarket tabloid's splashy revelation that the former U.S. senator and presidential candidate had betrayed his popular and cancer-stricken wife by fathering a child with a worshipful campaign videographer, the North Carolina Democrat was done. To some, such public humiliation would have been punishment enough.

But a platoon of federal prosecutors, led by a partisan Republican, supported by a division of the Justice Department that has a less-than-stellar record of dispensing justice, decided they wanted a piece of Edwards, too. So they charged Edwards with violation of federal campaign-finance laws by funneling nearly a million dollars in support and/or hush money to the politician's mistress. Thursday, after much sound and fury and jokes and tweets, a jury acquitted Edwards on one count and failed to reach a verdict on the other five. Sources say a retrial is unlikely. That's as it should be. Not everything that is filthy and ugly is a crime.

She goes on to write: But somehow, the public realized that this guy who looked so good and sounded so glib was really a fraud. Even without knowing about the secret love child or the sleazy right-hand man, or the impressive ability to stare right into a TV camera and lie like a rug, they got his number and picked other people to run for president. Voters' gut instincts are generally pretty good. They certainly were with John Edwards, which is, in a way, a happy ending to an awful story.

We'd like to thank all of you who called and emailed and tweeted us with your opinions on the John Edwards trial. And we'll put links to all the op-eds we read at our Web page. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.