I think John Edwards is a despicable character. Vain and insubstantial, a weak political reed in the wind, he cheated on his wife who was battling cancer, had an affair and impregnated a woman, and then tried to cover it up while he pursued his presidential campaign. When the cover-up failed, as cover-ups always do, it produced an ugly scandal that torpedoed Edwards’ political ambitions.
Yesterday Edwards was indicted for his actions. The indictment charges him with conspiring to violate campaign finance laws and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission in accepting more than $900,000 in contributions from large donors that were used, at least in part, in connection with the cover-up. The government argues that the contributions really were political because they were intended to protect the campaign’s ability to project the image of Edwards as family man. The head of the Justice Department’s criminal division said: “As this indictment shows, we will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws.”
The government’s theory pushes the envelope of how campaign finance laws are construed. The issue is whether politicians can get around the laws by accepting donations for claimed non-political purposes that nevertheless could have political implications — and a related issue is where you draw the line if you accept that interpretation. With campaigns extending for years and becoming all-consuming endeavors, couldn’t just about any claimed non-political contribution be argued to have a political dimension? If a high-roller friend hosts a candidate at a vacation home, are they making a political contribution because the period of relaxation will allow the candidate to recharge their batteries and be more effective down the home stretch? Edwards’ lawyers no doubt will focus on whether the government’s charges should be thrown out as beyond the scope of federal election laws.
If the charges survive the legal challenge and the case goes to trial, Edwards’ defense will not be attractive. His statement yesterday indicates that he will argue that yes, he was a cheater, and yes, he accepted money in an unsavory cover-up — but the cover-up was designed to deceive only his stricken wife, and not to deceive federal election regulators. How will a jury react to that theme?