Former Senator John Edwards was introduced to another America last Thursday by a federal judge in Greensboro, N.C. Edwards had sought to have the criminal charges against him dismissed, but the judge rejected the request.
In June, Edwards was indicted on six counts of illegal campaign contributions, conspiracy and false statements. If convicted on all six counts, he could be fined $1.5 million and face a maximum of 30 years in prison.
The author of three books and countless legal briefs had issued a two-word statement in response to the charges: “Not guilty.”
He later added, “I did not break the law.”
Fortunately for Edwards, in our justice system individuals are considered innocent until proven guilty. However, that does not mean that citizens are allowed to flagrantly disregard the law.
Unfortunately, in the opinion of some law-breaking politicians, it depends on what the meaning of law is.
You see, we live in two Americas: the America of those who live under the law, and the America of those who think they live above it.
Edwards has long spoken of two Americas in his various campaigns for president and as the vice presidential running mate for Sen. John Kerry. For example, on July 28, 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, Edwards said, “The truth is, we still live in a country where there are two different Americas: one, for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggle to make ends meet every single day.”
Edwards has long lived in the first America. Though he touted himself as the son of a mill worker, he rarely mentioned that his father ended up as the mill foreman.
In a similar fashion, another North Carolina politician, Gov. Beverly Perdue, referred to her working-class roots as a coal miner’s daughter in her 2000 lieutenant gubernatorial campaign. She often said, “We never knew we were poor.”
However, like most blondes in California, these roots are misleading. Yes, technically her father worked at a coal mine in West Virginia.
After all, he owned it.
Furthermore, the reason she never knew she was poor was because her father was a millionaire.
Forgive me, I digress.
Edwards has long inhabited the world of privilege and power.
As a trial attorney, he made millions of dollars suing companies, doctors and even the American Red Cross. As a one-term senator, and subsequent two-time presidential hopeful, Edwards lived and worked in Washington, D.C., a city in which the very air is permeated with power and elitism.
Very few elected officials who go there for any length of time can resist its siren call.
At the heart of the indictment is whether Edwards misused more than $900,000 in campaign contributions to cover up his affair with his one-time staffer Rielle Hunter and the subsequent birth of their daughter.
Additionally, the indictment states that Edwards “did knowingly and willingly … accept and receive, while a candidate for federal office, contributions … in excess of the limits of the Elections Act.” According to the Federal Elections Campaign Act (“the Elections Act”), the most an individual may contribute to any candidate in a primary is $2,300.
Edwards is accused of accepting $725,000 from one individual and over $200,000 from another.
Yet last Friday Edwards said, “I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law.”
To most Americans, $725,000 and $200,000 are sums greater than $2,300. Apparently, though, to the other Americans, the two sums are not greater than $2,300.
Sadly, in many ways Edwards is following in the footsteps of his mentor, President Bill Clinton.
When he was being legally deposed in another case, Clinton stated that he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. A federal judge later cited him for lying under oath and covering up the affair.
Yet, as a member of the “other America,” he was lightly punished and let off with a fine.
Like Edwards said, there really are two Americas. The people who live in the first America get punished for breaking the law; the people who live in the second just get reprimanded.
The question remains as to which America Edwards now belongs.
Burwell Stark is a columnist and freelance writer. A former teacher, he also has worked in the areas of legislative research, budget analysis and communications. He lives outside Wake Forest, NC with his wife and daughter. For more of Burwell’s columns, visit burwellstark.com.