WASHINGTON -- It seemed to me a decade ago that when John Edwards decided after a mere two years in Congress that he was now ready to run the country he was the perfect example of what Lyndon Johnson meant when he once said that the first thing a newly elected president has to remember is that there is a room full of U.S. senators who think they can do the job better than you. To me he was a jumped-up former ambulance chaser with blow-dried hair and the charm of a snake oil salesman, which he proved time and again by seducing juries in behalf of personal injury clients. That's hardly the kind of training one expects for leading the nation even though he made millions of dollars for himself and those he represented before taking his considerable charisma into politics. He was elected in his first try to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina -- the perfect image of a family man with an adoring wife and children.
I personally wrote him off as just another unseasoned long shot for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 although he garnered enough support to impress Sen. John Kerry who chose him as his vice presidential running mate. Unlike Kerry who remained in the Senate, Edwards devoted the next four years to keeping his presidential aspirations alive despite a desperately sick wife to whom he pledged absolute fealty and she to him.
Well, we all know that in many of these cases what we see is not what we get. What we got, folks, was a trash novel that would have made good summer reading at the North Carolina shore. The late Mrs. Edwards was not an all sacrificing Southern belle but by all accounts as sharp-tongued, driven and ambitious as her oily, lying, cheating husband whom she tolerated as long as his infidelity was private and there was no baby involved and it didn't get in the way of his and her White House hopes.
There is no doubt now that "Johnny Reid Edwards," as the Justice Department named him in its recent indictment, is a bum. He was so burned up with presidential ambition that he did anything he could to keep the scandal from dousing his fire and his wife aided and abetted it up to a point.
But the question is, did he break the law? Did money provided by his 100-year-old benefactor Rachael "Bunny" Mellon and another supporter used to hide his affair constitute illegal campaign contributions or were they personal loans to be spent anyway he saw fit? Government prosecutors and a grand jury say they were the former. Edwards and apparently Mrs. Mellon say the latter.
Those who know this case see the government's action as difficult to sustain. The fact that a grand jury indicted him means very little other than to prove once again the old adage that prosecutors can manipulate a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Some experts believe that it comes down to a matter of intent and that it will take a major effort for the government to prove that.
There are also serious concerns about the motives for this action. After embarrassing itself with grievous irregular behavior in the indictment and conviction of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, was the Justice Department determined to redeem itself? Such motivation is not all that uncommon among prosecutors, many of whom relish stepping over bodies on their way to personal prominence.
This promises to be another one of those drawn out affairs at considerable cost to the taxpayers and everyone else involved. Few will grieve for Edwards if he is unable to beat this rap or cheer for him if he does. He is just another victim of his own ambition and lack of character either way. On the other hand, the system that protects us from unwarranted prosecution should not fail and there is a good chance that it has this time.
If those who gave the money say it was a personal gift and not a campaign contribution, who is to say differently no matter how it may appear? You don't fry someone just because he's a bum.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)