Page last updated at 22:37 GMT, Thursday, 21 January 2010

John Edwards: Notes on a scandal

John Edwards in May 2007
Mr Edwards once had hopes for a top job in the Obama administration

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

John Edwards did not have the best lines, the best results or the best team in Campaign 2008 - but he was always going to be remembered for having the best hair.

He is the unwitting star of a classic YouTube video shot from the mirror's point of view as he spends what feels like an eternity teasing and flicking his elegantly coiffed but boyish parting into place as he prepares for a television interview.

Whoever posted it has set it - cruelly but hilariously - to the song I Feel Pretty. It is funny because Mr Edwards so obviously does feel pretty.

Apparently on John McCain's campaign bus during the gruelling battle of 2008 they used to screen the video when things got tough, and roll around laughing at their rival.

Publicist's nightmare

Now however, we know we are going to remember Mr Edwards for something else, too. Spin doctors and PR consultants around the world will study his story in future as an object lesson in how not to handle a scandal.

Rielle Hunter in August 2009
Rielle Hunter worked on the Edwards campaign team

Mr Edwards came very close to the top of American politics. He was the Democratic candidate for the vice-presidency in 2004 before running for the top job in 2008.

Still - his career is going to end up being studied by psychologists, rather than psephologists.

That is because he has spent the last two years watching his career slowly unravel as he tried unsuccessfully to face down tabloid allegations about his private life.

The charge - first made publicly in The National Enquirer - was that he had an affair with a campaign worker and fathered her child while his wife Elizabeth was being treated for cancer.

It is worth noting in passing that the mainstream media did not distinguish itself with this story, loftily ignoring it until The Enquirer eventually came up with evidence strong enough to stand up in a court of law, never mind the court of American public opinion.

Strategic errors

Mr Edwards' strategy was to absolutely deny absolutely everything until circumstances or the sheer weight of evidence forced him to admit the truth bit by bit.

This is a man who aspired not once, but twice, to the greatest office in world politics, and when he did it the second time around, he must have known all along that there was a scandal-bomb waiting to explode underneath his campaign

Some American newspapers have produced detailed timelines of the whole affair. Let me save you the trouble of reading them - the sequence boiled down to its essentials goes like this.

- I did not have an affair with that woman or father her child.

- OK. I had an affair with that woman but did not father her child.

- Alright. I did have an affair with that woman and I fathered her child.

There is no stage in the story at which Mr Edwards looks good, but many Americans feel the lowest point of all was when he admitted having an affair while his wife had cancer but added as a sort of plea of mitigation that she had been in remission at the time.

Even today's belated confession to paternity of the child in the case appears to have been prompted by the imminent publication of a book by a campaign aide, Andrew Young, which tells the story of the scandal from the inside.

Mr Young - who has also recorded an interview with ABC Television - says Mr Edwards pressured him into claiming that the child was his even though he is married with children of his own.

No innocent newcomer

It is also alleged that Mr Edwards asked his staff to steal one of the little girl's diapers so that he could have her DNA tested in secret and that he then asked his team to arrange to have a DNA test faked so that he could deny paternity.

It is - clearly - unpleasant and desperate stuff. But it is also fascinatingly reckless. This is a man, after all, who aspired not once, but twice, to the greatest office in world politics. And when he did it the second time around, he must have known all along that there was a scandal-bomb waiting to explode underneath his campaign.

It is all doubly odd because Mr Edwards is hardly an innocent newcomer to the public stage.

He was a successful trial lawyer for a while, winning lucrative medical malpractice suits and emerging as the hammer of corporate America.

High ambitions

And he was a successful politician too, with a back story of personal tragedy that engaged the sympathy of the voting public. One of his sons was killed in a freak car accident in the family's home state of North Carolina in 1996, and Mr Edwards' ability to battle on through the pain was much admired.

He became a US senator and entertained higher ambitions, too, although they were to come to nothing. He lost at John Kerry's side in the race for the presidency in 2004 and was very much the third candidate in the gripping race for the Democratic nomination four years later between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

An interesting footnote to all this, which gives an insight into how Mr Edwards sees things, is that even as the scandal began to engulf him, he apparently still believed he might be in line for one of the top jobs in the Obama administration.

He was wrong of course, and he still has to deal with two aspects of the affair which are far from over.

First, one day he is going to have to explain to his daughter why he repeatedly denied being her father.

And second and more immediately, he still faces an inquiry into whether he broke the law by diverting campaign funds to fund the affair.

You will probably have gathered by now that Mr Edwards' strategy towards that inquiry is to deny everything.

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