RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Now that he has survived his campaign corruption trial, John Edwards may face an even tougher fight to regain the public’s respect.
Image experts and friends recommended that the disgraced former Democratic presdential candidate put his public and political life on hold for a few years. The details of his affair and child with his mistress that were replayed at his trial are too fresh, they say.
“Plant a small garden, tend that garden and wait and listen,” said Wade Smith, an attorney who hired Edwards when he was a young attorney and represented him before the trial.
Then a number of things might be possible — a legal career representing breast cancer patients, and the poor, or life as a stay-at-home father. But not a career in politics, ever.
“I think John Edwards has no political future. Nada, zip,” said Emory University political science professor Merle Black. “I can’t think of any Democrat in the country that would want to be on the same stage with John Edwards.”
Jurors said they put aside Edwards’ transgressions and focused on prosecutors’ lack of evidence when they acquitted him on one count of illegally accepting campaign contributions and deadlocked on five other charges. Edwards was accused of orchestrating a plan to use money from campaign donors to hide his mistress, Rielle Hunter, while he ran for the White House.
Only time will tell if he can rehabilitate his image from sex scandals like other high-profile politicians, such as former President Bill Clinton, ex-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“I would tell him to disappear and take care of his family,” said Gary Pearce, a former political consultant who helped Edwards win a U.S. Senate seat in 1998. “There is arguably no man in public life more despised than he is.”
Edwards wasn’t specific about his future plans as he spoke Thursday outside the federal courthouse in Greensboro.
“I don’t think God’s through with me,” Edwards said. “I really believe he thinks there’s still some good things I can do and whatever happens with this legal stuff going forward, what I’m hopeful about is all those kids that I’ve seen, you know in the poorest parts of this country and some of the poorest parts in the world that I can help them.”
Friends said they were not exactly sure what he had in mind when he mentioned the poor. He helped develop the University of North Carolina School of Law’s Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which helps advocates for proposals and policies to lessen poverty across the nation.
Edwards also spoke about his current daily routine — making breakfast and sending his 14-year-old daughter Emma Claire and his 12-year-old son Jack to school. He even mentioned his late 16-year-old son Wade, who died in a 1996 auto accident. And he talked publicly about his daughter with Hunter for the first time, saying he loved Frances Quinn Hunter “more than any of you can ever imagine.”
His relationship with Hunter is less clear. After Edwards finished his statement, a tabloid reporter asked Edwards if he still loved Hunter and whether he planned to marry her. Edwards bowed his head slightly and turned away without acknowledging the question. His daughter, Cate, who looks much like her mother, shot the reporter a steely gaze.
No one answered the door at Hunter’s home in Charlotte after the mistrial was declared. Edwards has said he has been providing financial support for his daughter with Hunter ever since he acknowledged he was her father in 2010.
His personal financial worth isn’t known. While he made millions as a personal injury lawyer, he hasn’t practiced law in more than a decade and his law license is inactive.
Media consultant Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, said Edwards could do pro bono legal work for breast cancer, the disease that killed his wife, Elizabeth, or work on poverty issues.
Edwards can rehabilitate his image, Hillsman said. “I’m certain of it on a national scale,” he said. “I don’t know if he could do that in North Carolina.”
According to testimony at his trial, Edwards has spoken to friends about his dream of opening a law firm specializing in representing low-income and indigent clients.
Black, of Emory, said it might be difficult for Edwards to practice law again because opposing lawyers could talk about his public lies about the Hunter affair.
Whatever he does, Edwards should eschew cameras, microphones and Twitter, said Harlan Loeb, a crisis management expert in Chicago. Edwards could change his public story by the work he does out of the spotlight, he said.
“He needs to do a considerable amount of work over a sustained period of time,” Loeb said.
It might take even longer for people to forget how far the U.S. senator, vice presidential nominee and Democratic presidential contender fell from grace.
“We had such high hopes of him. He represented regular people against corporations. He was long married to a woman who didn’t look like a trophy wife,” said celebrity attorney Gloria Allred. “He had charisma, personality, commitment and experience. He had so much farther to fall so the disappointment is much greater.”
Smith, Edwards’ friend for about 30 years, said there’s still hope, and forgiveness ahead, for Edwards.
“The people of this country are a forgiving people and they understand that folks make terrible mistakes, that people get themselves in awful messes,” Smith said.
“He has a lot going for him, a lot of ability. The time will come when there will be things for him to do that will be worthwhile, and he will know what they are if he will be quiet and listen.”
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