N.C.'s Former Golden Boy Now Trying to Stay Out of Prison

John Edwards, the disgraced former candidate for vice-president and one-time golden boy of North Carolina politics, is back in the news. There are reports out that he's trying to cop a plea-bargain deal with the FBI and the IRS to avoid going to jail for misusing campaign funds to buy the silence of his former mistress, Rielle Hunter.

Say it ain't so, John-boy.

When Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, I was delighted. Finally, after decades of having North Carolina associated with the thick-skinned, hell-no politics of the late Jesse Helms, here was someone who I thought represented the state's true political heart. Edwards reminded me -- and apparently a lot of other people -- of the late Terry Sanford, a progressive Southern Democrat who served as North Carolina's governor in the early 1960s and later won a seat in the U.S. Senate and served as president of Duke University.

Edwards seemed to have stepped straight from the streets of Mayberry, the fictional North Carolina town that has been immortalized in "The Andy Griffith Show." In Mayberry, people disagree with each other but their disputes inevitably are resolved by the application of some good old down-home common sense, usually applied by the town's joshing, good-natured, smarter-than-he-looks sheriff, Andy Taylor.

Edwards cultivated an image that made you think he'd grown up as the best friend of Sheriff Taylor's son, Opie. "I believe I can be a champion for regular people," Edwards said back when he was crafting that image. "My own life experience allows me to see things through their eyes. They are the people I grew up with, the people who worked with my father in the mill, the people I fought for as a lawyer."

It sounded so good. When Edwards was elected to the Senate in 1998, it seemed the first step in a political career that could very well take him to the White House. But something changed when Edwards set up shop in Washington, D.C. Or maybe he didn't really change, he just shifted gears to pursue his true ambition of becoming president. He seemed to instantly forget the good old folks in the mill towns back home and set his sights on the White House the moment he arrived in the District of Columbia.

I'll admit I was fooled at first by Edwards's charm and political skills. But in my own defense, I also was among a few people who started having serious doubts about Edwards's sincerity soon after he took office and years before his hypocrisy was brought to light.

Around 2000, an issue surfaced in North Carolina politics that should have been tailor-made for Edwards's populist promise to represent the interests of the "regular people" he grew up with. The U.S. Navy began a ham-handed and ultimately futile effort to force Washington County, North Carolina to accept an unwanted training airfield for carrier-based jet fighters from nearby Norfolk, Virginia.

Since the jets using the training field -- known as an outlying landing field, or OLF -- would not be based in Washington County, there would be no economic benefit to the county for having the airfield. And the constant coming and going of the noisy, low-flying jets would be a serious disruption of residents' daily lives.

Despite protests from local political leaders and the vast majority of Washington County's 12,500 residents, the Navy pushed ahead with its plans.

Washington County is one of the state's poorest counties. Around 52 percent of its population is African-American. The county has little political clout. So the Navy thought it could force the OLF on the county because no one would come to its defense and the political costs to politicians for not opposing the OLF would be minimal.

Long story short, the Navy's plans to build the OLF in Washington County were halted thanks to a determined effort by local residents, the generosity and legal skill of the Charlotte law firm of Kennedy Covington, and the eventual opposition of most of the state's political leaders.

But John Edwards was nowhere to be seen in the fight against the OLF that dragged on for several years. As a self-proclaimed champion of "regular people," he should have been a leader in the opposition to the Navy's plan. But he ducked it. And since the fight against the OLF never really gained attention outside of North Carolina and Virginia, no one called him on his refusal to represent the people he'd promised to defend. The most effective opposition to the OLF came from U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Republican.

All of this was playing out back home while Edwards was a rising star in the national Democratic Party. The OLF issue was still being hotly contested in 2004, when Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry picked Edwards as his running mate for vice-president. Edwards's personal charm, boyish good looks, and soothing Southern accent seemed to make him the perfect running mate and regional counterbalance for the New England native Kerry.

The Kerry-Edwards ticket lost. Not long after the ticket's defeat in the 2004 election, reports surfaced that Kerry deeply regretted picking Edwards as his running mate. And then in late 2007 the National Enquirer -- a supermarket tabloid scorned by so-called serious political journalists -- nailed Edwards in an affair with Rielle Hunter. And now the guy who could have been Opie's pal and perhaps President of the United States is negotiating with the feds to try to avoid a prison term.

You fooled us, John. Frankly, I hope you go to jail, even if it's only for a few months. In case you've forgotten your small-town North Carolina roots, hypocrisy has never been popular among the "regular folks."

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