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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The undoing of John Edwards
Face it, the man betrayed more than just his wife

Okay, I admit to a certain awful fascination with John Edwards' affair. Ever since the mainstream media picked up the National Enquirer's lead and we learned of his dalliance and possible paternity problem with Reille Hunter, I've been waiting to hear what Elizabeth would say.

I checked the Internet every now and then to see if she would go beyond her dignified post on Daily Kos asking the blogging world to kindly leave her alone. But both Edwardses seemed to disappear. Who could blame them?

Now, with Elizabeth's new book, Resilience, and her tell-all appearance on Oprah, that's over.

I know, I know. It's dreadfully unseemly to gawk at yet another political sex scandal. But it's not just me.

On the Oprah Winfrey website, Edwards' affair is the single most popular item. That's partly because Elizabeth has a huge following among Oprah's fan base. In fact, she's what made Edwards himself appealing to many women voters. His marriage to a smart, accomplished, non-trophy wife seemed to show he was more than just a pretty face.

There has always been plenty of pathos in the Edwards family: the death of their son, Wade; the decision to have two more children later in life; and Elizabeth's battle with cancer. All were fodder for Elizabeth's blogs, women's mag interviews and her first book, Saving Graces. In it, she talked about seeking the support of strangers through online chat groups.

For better or worse, the Edwardses have long spent their personal lives in public. Their campaign was built in part on the confessional, therapeutic, daytime TV culture that made them seem like friends and neighbors.

When I met the Edwardses, while covering the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, I liked them. I followed the campaign bus through Iowa, watching the candidate talk about early childhood education and lovingly interact with his then preschool-age children. I interviewed Elizabeth during the second campaign and found her warm, genuine and politically progressive.

Most of all, I appreciated John Edwards' advocacy for the poor. His "Two Americas" speech, his insistence on forcing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to discuss not just the ever-popular "middle class" but the national shame of poverty, his unabashed advocacy for unionized labor, and his dead-on attacks on Wall Street influence peddling among his Democratic colleagues were extremely timely.

In fact, they're more timely than ever now, which is why Edwards' political demise is so unfortunate.

Of course, a lot of people - Democrats and Republicans alike - never bought into the Edwards charm. The YouTube video that went viral of the candidate fixing his hair before a TV appearance captured their attitude.

For those folks, the affair just proves what they already thought: that Edwards is a narcissist, a slick trial lawyer and a phony. I pooh-poohed all that. As a tort lawyer, I argued, Edwards represented injured victims harmed by big, callous corporations. He didn't take PAC money in his campaigns. And he offered an important if not 100% consistent critique of the corrupting power of money in politics.

Unfortunately, I must now concede that Edwards seems as slick and phony as his detractors alleged.

It's not because he was unfaithful, or even because he is under investigation for using campaign funds to pay off Reille Hunter. It's that, on the larger, more important public issues he championed, Edwards seems to have abandoned principle.

During the 2008 campaign, Edwards talked about the vanishing opportunity of children of the working poor - like himself - to go to college, get good jobs and join the middle class. Part of his solution was College for Everyone, a program to let any student who got good grades and was willing to work 10 hours a week attend college.

The program was a huge hit in the rural North Carolina county where Edwards started it. College applications spiked, from 74% to 94% of high school students, many of whom previously considered further education out of the question.

But like the anti-poverty foundation that served as a platform for Edwards between presidential runs, College for Everyone seems to have been more about appearances than actual change. As soon as Edwards' political career was over, he pulled the plug. No more College for Everyone.

Edwards once talked about ending poverty in this country within a generation. He forced other members of his party to confront the growing divide between classes in America. He spoke openly about how Wall Street has bought off most of our national leaders.

All of these points are still valid. As a country, we need people who can speak forcefully about the outrageous politics of bank bailouts and home foreclosures and industrial collapse. We need advocates for ordinary people, not the rich and connected.

Unfortunately, instead, we have Oprah and the weird ritual of another celebrity adulterer groveling in public.

So long, John Edwards. We hardly knew ye.

Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive.

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