I wish Jimmy Johnson had given, and John Edwards had heeded, the same warning Johnson gave me when I first ran for political office almost 30 years ago.
Johnson, a successful businessman, helped Bob Scott win the governor’s election in 1968. He knew North Carolina politics inside and out.
Here is what he told me when I sought his advice and support in my first election campaign.
“I hate to see you get into politics and running for office. I have seen it bring down a good young man like you. Liquor and women. There’s lots of liquor. And some women have a weakness for politicians and some politicians have a weakness for that kind of woman. It is a shame. I hate to see you get into all that.”
We learned during the trial that Edwards did get a similar warning from a junior campaign aide about the danger his close attachment to Rielle Hunter was creating for the campaign and Edwards’ political career. Edwards’ response was to have the aide dismissed.
If Jimmy Johnson or another “old hand” had been on the Edwards team and given him a sterner, no-nonsense warning that outlined the risks and consequences, Edwards might have adjusted his conduct.
But John Edwards did not have any Jimmy Johnsons around. His inability or unwillingness to attract, retain, and listen to the wise old hands of North Carolina politics might have been Edwards’ fatal flaw.
On the other hand, Edwards’ self confidence and his willingness to make his own place in the state’s and country’s political life played a big part in his appeal. Having a group of senior politicians surrounding him and pulling the campaign’s strings would not have fit with Edwards’ brand of new politics.
Now that the trial is over, we get to wrestle with another question. Should the government have brought charges against Edwards in the first place?
Maybe we should wait to answer until we know more about what really led to the decision to prosecute Edwards. Without more, it is hard to understand why the government chose to spend so many resources to prosecute Edwards. To win a conviction, the government needed to prove that Edwards knew that the gifts from his two rich friends were illegal campaign contributions. Because some legal experts say the gifts were not crimes, the government’s attempt to show that Edwards knew the gifts were violations seems to have been a fool’s errand.
You should know that personal experience informs my opinion about this point. Government investigators heard that I had attended the same campaign finance law seminar that John Edwards attended back in 1997 or 1998 when he and I were running against each other in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. The seminar was an event that I could not remember. In the fall of 2010, two government agents took hours and hours of time trying without success to lead me into remembering.
But the government did not give up. A court order required me to assemble and deliver any communication I had with anyone connected to the case.
They must have been looking for something to show that Edwards and I had been taught enough about campaign finance for him to know that the gifts from
his rich friends were campaign contributions.
The government never found such a “smoking gun” from me or from the hundreds of other places they looked. Nevertheless, it spent millions of dollars of your and my tax dollars to try Edwards.
Who knows for sure why the prosecutors were so anxious to spend all that money and all that time on this case?
But if I were in charge, I would send a bill for those millions to the prosecutor who brought the case.