An Edwards Comeback?

The news that former senator and two-time presidential candidate John Edwards gave a speech at Indiana University and will participate in a public debate against Karl Rove in San Francisco this evening took many by surprise.

The revelation that Edwards engaged in an extramarital affair with a former campaign staffer, possibly fathering a child with her at a time when Elizabeth Edwards very publicly suffered from cancer, rocked the political world. Former Edwards campaign staffers still shudder when his name is mentioned in their presence. For many, their former boss — someone they admired and whose campaign they poured their hearts and souls into — is persona non grata.

Certainly no American politician fell from grace and recovered as spectacularly as Richard Nixon. We often forget that after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Nixon was considered political carrion. Slowly and surely, Nixon worked his way back into the Republican Party's — and America's — good graces. After improbably winning the 1968 presidential campaign and a landslide 1972 reelection, no one thought Nixon would end up resigning from office after famously declaring, "I am not a crook." Fewer still expected Nixon's second comeback, where he served as an international statesman and adviser to presidents, including, improbably, Bill Clinton.

To many Americans, certainly to most North Carolinians for whom Edwards was a senator, he always seemed more of an opportunist. Immediately after being elected senator, he met with an adoring media and began plotting for president, at the expense of the job he was elected to. He seemed to care more about — and spent more time in — New Hampshire than New Hanover County, N.C. His appointment as the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (full disclosure: the author attended this school) seemed to be more about keeping Edwards's presidential hopes alive than solving poverty.

As Edwards undoubtedly knows, his wife is respected by an overwhelming majority of Americans as a tough fighter for issues she is passionate about and for her courageous battle against cancer. If his own campaign staff cannot bring themselves to even mention his name, it will be a tough row for Edwards to hoe.

Still, it will be interesting to see whether Edwards can disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald's remark that "there are no second acts in American lives."

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