POLITICS JUNE 30, 2010
On Saturday night, April 24, 2010, five days before John Edwards’s mistress Rielle Hunter sat down with Oprah to talk about the by-then-infamous sex tape and other embarrassments that had destroyed his political career, the former presidential candidate showed up at the West End Wine Bar in downtown Durham, North Carolina. It was around ten o’clock, and Edwards wanted a glass of wine after finishing dinner with friends at a nearby restaurant.
When he got to the door, Edwards was disappointed to learn the bar was closed for a private event. A group of Duke public policy grad students had reserved the space to celebrate the end of the semester at a party they call “Prom.” Inside, a DJ mixed dance music, while a scrum of twentysomethings jostled for drinks. Edwards and his friends turned to leave. Matthew Jentgen, a 28-year-old environmental policy student collecting tickets at the door, furiously lobbied them to come inside. “I told him, ‘We’re public policy students, it’d be interesting to have you at the party,’” Jentgen recently recalled. “He was looking as if he was wondering if he wanted to come in or not.... I wore him down, because, eventually, they came in.”
Word that Edwards was at the door coursed through the crowd. Once he was inside, students came up to snap photos with him. One attendee recalled that he wore his wedding ring. Edwards lapped up the attention. “He was graciously taking pictures for thirty minutes,” Jentgen says. Not everyone was thrilled, though. “Some people there had worked on his campaign and were still excited to see him,” Jentgen recalls. “Others, obviously, were not.”
Edwards stayed for two hours, leaving around midnight. He drank white wine and light beer, according to multiple attendees. After a while, Edwards made his way to the dance floor. “He was kind of uncomfortably dancing,” Jentgen says. “He was just happy to be with people who weren’t going to judge him.” Edwards cut loose, dancing to everything from salsa to Wreckx-n-Effect’s 1992 rap hit “Rump Shaker.”
In the aftermath of the 2008 presidential campaign, Edwards was said to be distraught. He lost a precipitous amount of weight, and advisers even told reporters at the time that they worried he might be suicidal. Since then, his circumstances have only gotten worse. A federal grand jury continues to probe whether he illegally funneled campaign contributions to Hunter to keep their affair secret. Hunter’s explosive interviews with GQ and Oprah kept the scandal-mill churning, as did a tell-all memoir by former Edwards aide Andrew Young. A January 2010 poll by Public Policy Polling concluded that Edwards is the “most unpopular person we’ve polled anywhere at any time.”
But Edwards is refusing to follow in the tradition of other disgraced figures like Tiger Woods and Eliot Spitzer, who initially kept low profiles after they were publicly humiliated. On the contrary, since January—when he admitted to fathering a child with Hunter and said he was separating from his wife, Elizabeth—there have been frequent Edwards sightings around Durham. On a given night, he might pop up at The Federal, a dimly lit Durham dive bar, or The Wooden Nickel, a bar in nearby Hillsborough that features “Club 69”—an honor bestowed on patrons who consume at least one drink from every bottle behind the bar. (“Club 69” members have their portraits engraved on hand-carved wooden plaques lining the wall.)
Friends say that Edwards’s new lifestyle stems from a sense of relief that both his failing marriage and his days of concealing the truth about his personal life are behind him. “He felt badly … that he had disowned his child,” Harrison Hickman, Edwards’s longtime pollster, told me. “He wanted to set the record straight about that.” A less charitable view, voiced by former friends and political advisers, is that Edwards’s bachelor lifestyle is a symptom of his outsize ego. Whatever the case, Edwards is—on the surface, anyway—trying to enjoy himself. As Jentgen remarked after seeing Edwards hit the dance floor, “If his career is over, at least he’s having a life.”
Edwards spent part of last summer at his family’s beach house on North Carolina’s Figure Eight Island. There, he was seen jogging in the oppressive heat. “Not one single hair was the least bit out of place,” a neighbor, Lynn Haley, recalled of one extremely windy day. Around the same time, Andrea Griffith, an editor at Chapel Hill Magazine, bumped into Edwards while she was interviewing Elizabeth for an article about her recently opened furniture store. At this point, John had admitted his affair with Rielle Hunter—but his admission that he fathered a child with Hunter and his separation from Elizabeth were both still months off. Edwards came in wearing shorts and a t-shirt, drinking soda out of a plastic cup. “He’d been to Wendy’s. It was the middle of the day, on a Tuesday,” Griffith told me. Edwards sat in the corner reading his Kindle. After the interview with Elizabeth, Griffith went up to Edwards and asked what he had been doing. “I’m thinking about getting into law,” he said wistfully, as his voice trailed off. (Through a spokesperson, Edwards declined to comment for this article.)
Griffith wasn’t the only person to whom Edwards mused about his professional future. Six months earlier, in February 2009, Edwards received a letter from a man named Michael Bonderer, a Kansas City native who had spent the previous decade doing volunteer work in Central America. Bonderer runs a Christian charity called Homes from the Heart that builds housing in El Salvador. Bonderer told me he contacted Edwards on a lark while he was looking for a political celebrity to become aligned with his charity. “I said, ‘Who would have time to devote to our mission?’ I was thinking of different politicians. I started cold calling. I called that Republican guy I don’t particularly care for—Newt Gingrich. I thought George Bush once he left office would be a good one. I called everybody.” Bush and Gingrich weren’t available, but Edwards responded to Bonderer’s letter. Later that spring, he took a commercial flight to El Salvador with his closest friend and former law partner, David Kirby, to check out Bonderer’s organization. “This whole mess he’s in hadn’t gone front and center yet,” Bonderer recalls.
Bonderer and Edwards hit it off. Through the end of 2009, Edwards would travel three more times to El Salvador and work in a slum on the outskirts of San Salvador. While pouring concrete and hammering nails, Edwards seemed to forget his troubles back home. He never once spoke about Hunter or the paternity scandal. Last December, Edwards confided in Bonderer. “What would be my strategy if all this went away?” Edwards asked. “He pretty much knows he couldn’t be a trial lawyer,” Bonderer told me. “He couldn’t play to a jury. He couldn’t run for office again, although he never rules out anything. He said to me, ‘Mike, I want to help the poor.’ I said, ‘Then you need a plan.’ The truth is he wants to help people. He doesn’t want his legacy to be he had a toot with this gal from nowhere and that’s the sum of his life.”
Even in El Salvador, Edwards didn’t completely shirk publicity. In December 2009, he talked glowingly about his career to a group of UCLA students who were on a volunteer trip to the country. “I’ve met presidents, premiers, leaders all over the world,” he tells the students in a little-seen YouTube video. “I’ve done it all, being on an aircraft carrier, you name it, I’ve done it.”
And, even after conceding in January 2010 that he had fathered a child with Hunter, he still did not shun the spotlight. The very day after he released a statement admitting paternity, Edwards was on a private plane to Haiti with Sean Penn and a celebrity delegation. “When I was with him in Haiti, no one was interested in John Edwards as a bad boy,” Bonderer says. Bonderer told me he didn’t even know about the paternity scandal, and Edwards never mentioned the turmoil breaking back home.
Once on the ground, Edwards acted like a politician still in command. He argued with military officials at the Port-au-Prince airport in order to get a group of critically wounded children onto a medical flight to Florida. At first, the military balked at his request. “If you saw him working the military, you couldn’t imagine a guy like that being in that much shit,” Bonderer told me. The officials relented and transported the children to a hospital in Fort Lauderdale. “It was all Hollywood. He had two colonels working on it, he had young officers working on it. I’d never seen anything like it. It was nuts.”
Initially, Elizabeth was supportive of John’s volunteer work. She approved of his first trips to El Salvador. “They were talking all the time,” Bonderer told me. But later, when Edwards headed to Haiti—around the time the couple’s separation was announced—Elizabeth became upset that Edwards continued to pop up in public as scandal swirled around him. She e-mailed Bonderer and vented about Edwards drawing more attention to himself. “She wanted him hunkered down somewhere with his mouth shut,” Bonderer says.
A few months after returning from Haiti, Edwards showed up for a glass of wine at a friend’s house in Chapel Hill. The group included Edwards’s onetime close friend Gus Gusler, a lawyer for Hootie and the Blowfish who had gone to college with Edwards and been an early backer. Gusler had a particularly personal falling-out with Edwards during the campaign and was still angry at him for lying about the Hunter affair. According to one person familiar with the exchange, Edwards’s performance that night did little to patch things up. Gusler sat silently as Edwards “talked about himself for an hour and a half.” Edwards regaled the group with tales from his trip to Haiti, talked about his newfound bachelorhood, and joked about how young women flirt with him when he’s out at restaurants.
One of the realities of Edwards’s post-campaign life is that the ongoing federal investigation makes it nearly impossible for him to work. Edwards doesn’t have an office or a staff, one person close to him says. These days, he tends to his legal problems and little else—besides caring for his two young children. Edwards’s inner circle consists of a lead lawyer and a spokesperson. Beyond this limited group, Edwards has not spoken with political advisers from the 2008 campaign for more than a year, and many of his longtime friends haven’t heard from him in months. “I am really just completely out of touch with John,” says Wade Byrd, a prominent North Carolina trial lawyer and Edwards friend. On Christmas morning last year, Byrd called Edwards because it had been so long since they’d talked. “He seemed fine,” Byrd told me. “But, you know, John was always good at putting the best spin on things.”
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.