By DeWayne Wickham
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Back in 1925, a trial in Dayton, Tenn., a far-more sanctimonious part of the Bible Belt than this place, transfixed the nation. In that farce of a legal proceeding, John Scopes, a high school instructor, was convicted of teaching his students the theory of human evolution.
The so-called Monkey Trial was more a tug of war between backers of a scientific explanation of the beginning of life and fervent believers in the literal word of Genesis, than it was a search for justice.
John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and Democratic Party presidential candidate, is now on trial here ostensibly for violating federal campaign-finance rules. And as with Scopes, the charges against Edwards have the rank smell of political Puritanism. The essence of this case is undeniable, even if the charges against Edwards suggest otherwise.
The onetime golden boy of North Carolina politics cheated on his wife and tried mightily to keep that moral failing from being publicly exposed. Edwards’ dalliance with Rielle Hunter was, for a time, a syndicated secret. His wife knew about it. And so did Andrew Young, the former chief political aide to Edwards, and his wife. Young is now the star witness against Edwards.
An admitted liar and lawbreaker, Young has been granted immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony. That’s more than a bit ironic because it was Young and his wife, Cheri, who received and doled out nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors to help Edwards conceal his extramarital affair.
Some of those funds — all of which went into a bank account controlled by Young’s wife, not Edwards’ presidential campaign — were used to help build a house for Young’s family. The money that Rachel Mellon, a wealthy philanthropist, and Texas attorney Fred Baron gave Young’s wife far exceeded the $2,300 any single donor can give in federal campaigns. Using that money to keep his adultery secret during the 2008 presidential campaign meant that the funds served a political purpose , prosecutors argue, and thus constituted a violation of federal campaign-finance laws.
Still, only Edwards has been charged with a crime.
Attorneys for Edwards contend that the money was used to keep his wife from learning that he had not ended his relationship with Hunter as promised and that the relationship had produced a love child. Usually, the government leaves something this sordid to a husband and wife to resolve. It’s not a matter for a federal judge and jury to sort out. But Edwards faces charges that could send him to prison for 30 years.
The decision to prosecute Edwards makes the Justice Department lawyers look more like morality police than defenders of the American political system. The stretch they are making to link the money from Mellon and Baron to Edwards’ presidential campaign seems to be a thinly veiled effort to criminalize the adultery of a high public figure — for no good reason other than moral outrage. It’s easy not to like Edwards. Only 3% of respondents in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll said they have a favorable view of him. Thirty percent said the first thing that comes to mind when they think of him is that he cheated on his wife, who died in 2010 after a long, public battle with cancer.
But my gut tells me that the case against Edwards springs from the worst intentions of Puritanism, rather than the best values of the American legal system.