My Lunch With John

Maybe five or six years ago, a friend who was active in the campaign asked me if I wanted to have lunch with John Edwards. I’d thought highly of Edwards and might have supported him in the election, so I happily accepted the invitation.

It was a small lunch, just some people around a conference table at a local law firm. I had a good opportunity to take measure of the man. Edwards chatted with the people there, mostly donors and potential donors, then made some remarks.

Here’s what I remember:

Edwards talked about the Democratic presidential primary campaign as if winning it were a formality, provided he had adequate resources early (wink, wink). He’d always done well in Iowa, and figured to repeat, due to the fervor of young people. He then thought it likely he’d finish a strong second to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, owing to his name recognition. But finishing second there wouldn’t be bad. He assured us, he’d kick ass in South Carolina because, now affecting a comically exaggerated Southern accent, “I’m the only one in the race who talks like this.”  The South Carolina bounce would feed momentum into Super Tuesday, which would guarantee positive coverage in other states, which would blah blah blah, then I win.

Okay, you’re speaking to donors, so you’d better outline a way you will win, but I didn’t sense any awareness on Edwards’ part that, in Hillary Clinton (I didn’t even know Barack Obama was going to be a serious candidate then; it was early in the campaign.), he faced an incredibly able adversary with deeply committed supporters. Further (and this is based on almost 25 years in the speech business),  although I agreed with Edwards on almost all positions of policy, I couldn’t sense his emotional connection to his positions, which is death for candidates.

He smiled real big as his eyes worked the room. But neither his eyes nor his smile had the authentic glee Bill Clinton’s had when I saw him work the same kind of crowd early in his first presidential campaign. Clinton, I thought, always looked happy to be the guest of honor at any party that would invite him. With Edwards, it had seemed more like business than pleasure.

As I look at John Edwards now, facing trial in a North Carolina court, I think back harder on that lunch, trying to remember anything that might have been an indicator of the type of man he actually was, not the type of man I tried to see in him. And I can’t. He was attractive and facile, just like every other political candidate I’ve ever seen.

But as I think back, I think back in anger; John Edwards flew around the country soliciting donations for his campaign at the same time he was having an extra-marital affair and consciously planning to funnel some portion of those funds to his mistress. He asked for my money so he could become President of the United States, knowing he was engaging in behavior that would, in all likelihood, prevent him from ever attaining that office. And he asked for my money knowing that some of it would be used to underwrite the cost of his sexual gratification. [I’m not even going to address his wife, and all the campaign goodwill he harvested from her fight with cancer, and his very visible support of her.]

Like many other people, I was fooled by John Edwards, but I take no small measure of solace in the fact that he is facing the possibility of justice for his actions now.