Local Politics

Did Edwards' quick rise lead to ugly fall?

Posted June 27, 2011 6:23 p.m. EDT
Updated June 27, 2011 7:17 p.m. EDT

— Some who helped John Edwards launch his political career in the late 1990s wonder if his meteoric rise in Washington, D.C., might have been a factor in his extramarital affair and the criminal charges he now faces.

Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina and two-time Democratic candidate for president, was indicted June 3 on charges that he received illegal campaign contributions and used the money to hide his affair and child with campaign staffer Rielle Hunter.

He has denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that the money he received from a Virginia heiress and a Texas banker were gifts that didn't need to be reported as campaign contributions.

A trial on the charges is unlikely before next year, as Edwards' attorneys haven't yet started to comb through the more than 300,000 pages of evidence federal authorities have compiled in the case.

Edwards was a successful trial lawyer when he decided to get into politics more than a decade ago. He won his first election, defeating Republican U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1998.

"He made a big splash in the beginning, and there was almost immediate speculation about the future," said Gary Pearce, a Democratic consultant who helped with Edwards' Senate campaign.

"I think, in retrospect, that was the worst thing that ever happened to him," Pearce said. "John never had an apprenticeship in politics. ... He went straight to 'the show.'"

Edwards chose to forgo running for re-election in 2004 and instead sought the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Anyone who gets elected to the Senate starts thinking about running for president," Pearce said.

His candidacy attracted attention for its energy, and he had strong showings in early primaries. A series of poor finishes later on led him to drop out of the race, but eventual nominee John Kerry picked him as his vice presidential running mate.

"Most people running for office don't start at that level," said Barbara Allen, a former chairwoman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. "There was something underneath that you could feel – maybe he was getting too much attention."

Neither Pearce nor Allen has talked to Edwards since shortly after he and Kerry lost the 2004 election to former President George W. Bush. They said they don't know what led him to cover up his affair with Hunter during his 2008 presidential campaign, but they noted that politics often overtakes people.

"Politics is the worst addiction in the world," Pearce said.

"There's pressure coming from everywhere. From every side, you're pressured," Allen said. "Maybe that's what happened with John. Maybe he ceased to listen to the average person."

Even with politics now out of the equation, both Pearce and Allen said they feel he can have a future that reminds them more of his past.

"I thought he had such great, great potential," Allen said. "I hope the lessons have been learned. I hope they can move forward and stick together as a family."