John Edwards' indictment Friday, on charges that he used $925,000 in campaign contributions to hide an extramarital affair and love child, capped a spectacular fall from grace for the former Democratic senator and vice presidential nominee. Edwards reportedly turned down a plea deal because prosecutors wanted him to spend six months in prison to avoid a trial. What can other politicians, and all of us, learn from his downfall? Here, five lessons:
1. The cover-up is worse than the crime
Though it was undeniably loathsome that Edwards cheated on his then-cancer-stricken wife, the late Elizabeth Edwards, while pursuing the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, says Meredith Carroll at Babble, it was even worse that he "subsequently lied to his family and the country about the affair and the baby." And it's the cover-up that got him into legal trouble. Pay attention, kids — lying only makes your offenses worse.
2. Edwards was never who Dems thought he was
"From the beginning of Edwards’ political career, liberal enthusiasts gushed about his talents," says Mona Charen at National Review. They characterized him as sexy and bold, a crusader who had stood up for the unfortunate since his days as a trial lawyer. But that was never true — Edwards was a "fortune-hunting, slick, and unscrupulous" malpractice attorney. It's no surprise he went on to become a "manipulative, mendacious, and morally bankrupt politician."
3. A politician's personal life is no longer his own
There seems to be little dispute that Edwards' wealthy donors provided money that he used to hide his affair with mistress Rielle Hunter and support his illegitimate child, says Ari Melber at The Nation. But the prosecution will go further, arguing that the cover-up was crucial to Edwards' candidacy since he was campaigning as a family man, which means the funds absolutely should have been reported as campaign contributions, not passed off as personal gifts. For politicians, prosecutors are saying, the personal is political.
4. Loyalty is not always a good thing
In Washington, loyalty is considered one of the ultimate virtues, says Merrill Matthews at Forbes, but the Edwards case demonstrates that "it can also be a fault." Robert E. Lee once said that loyalty should go "first to God, then family, and finally country." When you put a boss or friend first — as Edwards' close aides and supporters did — "that loyalty comes at the expense" of the things that really matter most.
5. Sadly, the messenger can kill the message
John Edwards' "Two Americas" theme was something the nation needed to hear, says Jim Buchanan in the Asheville, N.C., Times-Citizen. The privileged really do enjoy the sort of health care, school, and tax systems that the poor can only dream of. The problem is more urgent than ever in these hard times of unemployment and public debt. Unfortunately, when Edwards discredited himself, he discredited his message, too.