WASHINGTON — The rise of Johnny Reid Edwards from mill worker's son to vice presidential candidate can be measured only against the stunning plummet that culminated Friday with a criminal indictment, which accuses Edwards of using trickery, deception and a pair of wealthy benefactors to hide his affair and love child from American voters.
Edwards answered the charges within hours, facing a bank of cameras and scores of reporters and onlookers by the steps of the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem. His oldest daughter, Cate, stood beside him.
In 2004, the nation's Democrats would have had Edwards second in line to the presidency.
But he was undone by his own foibles — and by a blonde campaign hanger-on who had his child and whom he allegedly allowed supporters to pay vast sums of hush money to in order to maintain his family-man image. All this, of course, while his wife was dying of cancer.
"He's a man of enormous talents, and to see him throw it all away based on a series of decisions he made two to three years ago, it's sad at that level," said Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic political consultant and political watchdog in Raleigh, N.C. "He's thrown away his reputation, his legal career and his political career."
Edwards' fall goes beyond Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart and the snuggly photograph with his mistress on a yacht in 1988. Beyond even Clinton's dalliance with an intern. To find this kind of plunge, one has to think back to President Richard Nixon — undone by arrogance and paranoia.
Consider the details:
He told his wife it was just a one-night fling.
He made a sex tape.
He told the world the affair never happened.
He asked a campaign aide to claim paternity of his child.
On Friday, Edwards brought his oldest daughter with him to his federal court arraignment in Winston-Salem, N.C. There, he faced six felony counts of conspiracy, of illegal campaign contributions and of making false statements.
He stands accused of trying to protect his presidential candidacy by secretly getting two rich friends, Fred Baron of Texas and Bunny Mellon of Virginia, to spend $925,000 to conceal his relationship with Hunter and her pregnancy with his child.
The money never went through his campaign fund, but the Justice Department said the payments amounted to campaign contributions.
In one example, the indictment said, Baron, now deceased, slipped Edwards' campaign aide $1,000 in an envelope that said, "Old Chinese saying: use cash, not credit cards!"
Baron later paid for chartered flights, fancy hotels and rent on a house in Santa Barbara, Calif., according to the indictment.
The nation's top law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Holder, said Friday that his office was committed to the prosecution "of individuals who abuse the very system of which they seek to become a part."
Edwards' defense is that he used the money to conceal his mistress only from his wife, Elizabeth — sordid, but not illegal.
Edwards' attorney, Greg Craig, the former White House counsel for President Barack Obama who also directed Clinton's legal team during impeachment, said his client is innocent of all charges and will plead not guilty.
"He did not break the law and will mount a vigorous defense," Craig said. He called the charges an "unprecedented prosecution," and legal observers agree that the indictment tests the limits of the 40-year-old campaign finance law.
If he's found guilty, Edwards would become a felon. But even before Friday's indictment, he had little left to his good name.
"If you look at the collateral damage, his career is destroyed," said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Michigan who specializes in public corruption. The indictment and possible trial just prolong the pain, he said.
"When you deal with public officials, it's so different than really any other case," Henning said. "They don't want to plead guilty; they're just so resistant to it that they didn't do anything wrong."
The common refrain that Johnny Reid Edwards, 57, was born the son of a South Carolina mill worker became an inside joke on the campaign trail in both his presidential quests.
But there was more to his story.
Edwards met his wife, Elizabeth, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill while they were law students. He was immediately smitten, and as the two courted and married, he made big plans for his career even though, friends whispered, she was the smarter of the two.
Their appealing love story — they dined at Wendy's each year for their anniversary — formed a good chunk of Edwards' biography.
In the courtroom Edwards had a lot of charm. He made a big name — and millions of dollars — as a savvy trial lawyer who could turn juries to mush.
His closing argument in the case of a young girl eviscerated by a faulty pool drain drew a crowd of lawyers from across North Carolina to a county courthouse, where the benches were packed to see young Edwards in action. That was in 1997, just after the death of his 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car accident.
After Wade's death, Edwards felt called to public service. He aimed big, and won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Before his first term expired, he ran for president.
He chose a populist message about "Two Americas" and moved crowds to tears with his explanation of how the country had become split into the haves and have-nots.
Edwards was good-looking, and he knew it. Women mobbed him at campaign stops to have their photos taken with him. He once paid $400 for a haircut, and during his second presidential run someone leaked a YouTube video of him preening his hair before a television appearance. He was derided as a "Breck girl."
In 2004 Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts won the presidential nomination, and chose Edwards as his running mate. They lost to George W. Bush, but Edwards ran for president again, making his announcement in a Hurricane Katrina-devastated New Orleans parish.
In early 2006, a few months before he entered the race, he met Rielle Hunter in a hotel bar in Manhattan.
In her memoir, "Resilience," Elizabeth Edwards recalled the night later that year that her husband told her about the affair. She rushed to the bathroom and vomited.
But he also told her it was just a one-time thing, and she decided he should continue the campaign. It was a choice that would later outrage Democratic supporters once the whole truth emerged. What if Edwards had become the party's nominee?
When Elizabeth announced that the breast cancer she battled after the 2004 campaign had returned and that it would kill her, many expected the couple to return to their North Carolina home and leave politics behind.
They fought on.
That was March 2007.
Six months later, the National Enquirer reported that Edwards was having an affair. Soon after, the tabloid reported that his mistress, Hunter, was pregnant with his child.
Edwards issued public denials. Mainstream media outlets, squeamish about both the Enquirer and the sex, largely steered clear.
A month later, Edwards left the race.
When he publicly admitted in January 2010 the truth about Hunter and their daughter, Quinn, Elizabeth kicked him out of the house.
Days later, he traveled to Haiti to help with earthquake relief.
"He identified his tragic flaw. I think it's narcissism," said Sinsheimer, the political consultant. "He's not the first person to become intoxicated by the media gaggle. It's like a drug that once you get, it's hard to get away."
Elizabeth died of the cancer in December. Edwards attended the funeral and stood outside a Raleigh church in the rain, near hundreds of sign-waving Elizabeth supporters, as a hearse drove away with her body.
Friday afternoon, he stood outside the courthouse in Winston-Salem to atone and to defend himself in his actions these past five years.
"I have done wrong," Edwards said. "And I take full responsibility for having done wrong. And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused to others.
"But I did not break the law. And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011