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The dividing line on John Edwards

In the wake of the scandal that derailed ex-Sen. John Edwards' political career, his home state of North Carolina is split between those willing to forgive him and those still angry.

October 12, 2009|Richard Fausset

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — So here, again, are two Americas.

In one of them, John Edwards is little more than a late-night TV punch line.

But in the other America, inhabited by North Carolinians like Claude Neville, the philandering politician and his beleaguered family are not celebrity abstractions, but flesh-and-blood neighbors.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
John Edwards: An article in Monday's Section A about North Carolina's divided views of John Edwards, its former senator, mischaracterized part of an interview with University of North Carolina Law School Dean Jack Boger. Because of an editing error, the article said that Boger pointed out a line from the 22nd Psalm; in fact, he only alluded to the psalm generally. The article also misspelled Akai Hana restaurant as Aki Hana.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 20, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 4 inches; 185 words Type of Material: Correction
John Edwards: An Oct. 12 article in Section A about North Carolina's divided views of John Edwards, its former senator who admitted having an extramarital affair, mischaracterized part of an interview with University of North Carolina Law School Dean Jack Boger, and a correction published Oct. 13 said the error was made in editing but did not fully explain the mistake. The article reported that Boger said that the fall of Edwards reminded him of a certain passage from the Book of Psalms, and that Boger pulled down a Bible and pointed out a line from the 22nd Psalm, "I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people." In fact, Boger did not point to the verse quoted in the article; that error was produced in editing when two sentences were combined and extra wording added. The article correctly reported that Boger said, after looking at a Bible, that the psalm was not one he had been thinking of as applying to the Edwards saga. Boger ultimately declined to point to any specific citation as applying to Edwards.

"If I see him again I'll speak nice," said Neville, who lives around the corner from Edwards' secluded, $6.7-million compound. "The Bible says you're supposed to forgive."

Edwards famously spoke of two Americas when denouncing the divide between rich and poor. Here in North Carolina there's a different divide -- those willing to forgive and those who remain angry at Edwards, 56, for cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and putting the Democratic Party's 2008 aspirations at risk. James Protzman, a local liberal blogger and acquaintance of John Edwards', noted another sentiment: "A lot of people have been saying, 'Can we please move on?' "

That seems unlikely.

The National Enquirer and others have reported that a federal grand jury in Raleigh, the state capital, has convened to weigh whether campaign laws were violated when wealthy Edwards supporters made payments to his lover, Rielle Hunter, to keep her out of the spotlight. The New York Times last month reported that Edwards is considering admitting that he is the father of Hunter's young daughter, which he has repeatedly denied. The paper also reported that Hunter and the child may be moving to Wilmington, N.C., where the Edwardses have another house.

Neville, 60, a retired firefighter, has kept up with the news, and it has been a letdown. He's a conservative, but his neighborly meetings with Edwards sold him on the handsome politician. He hasn't seen Edwards since at least 2008, when Edwards admitted to his affair with Hunter, a videographer who worked on his presidential campaign.

Now, Neville said, he feels "betrayed."

"I guess that's the way a lot of people in the neighborhood feel," he said.

Before the sex scandal, there was no North Carolina family quite like the Edwardses, and there is no family quite like them now. No other family, it seems, has been so blessed and so cursed, so loved and shunned. He was the mill town boy made good, with a blazing intellect that helped him become the state's most dominant trial lawyer.

Some here credit Elizabeth Edwards with ironing out his rough country edges and grooming him for the enviable life they would build together in Country Club Hills, one of Raleigh's toniest neighborhoods.

The idyllic picture would crack in 1996, when their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car accident.

Two years later, John Edwards, seeking a higher purpose, triumphed in an out-of-nowhere campaign for the Senate. In 2004, he lost a bid for vice president as running mate to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass). Then Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with cancer.

And now, this: a betrayal, and an increasingly messy one, eliciting both fascination and revulsion among the locals -- that is, if they've still got a stomach for the prurience.

"It's icky," said Lisa Sorg, editor of Independent Weekly, an alternative publication in Raleigh, who has been following the details from afar.

Protzman, the blogger, likened it to a car accident too grisly to look at. "I haven't looked at the wreck -- it's irrelevant. It's sad," he said.

Said Gary Pearce, a former strategist for Edwards' successful Senate run, "A lot of people who didn't like him said, 'I told you so.' And most of the people who were with him have fallen away out of disgust and disappointment."

The feelings of betrayal are particularly strong here in Chapel Hill, the famously liberal college town where the family moved after Edwards left the Senate in 2005. In some quarters, John and Elizabeth are both being blamed for pressing ahead with his presidential run despite their shared knowledge of the affair: If Edwards had secured the Democratic nomination, such critics say, the revelation might have meant Republican victory.

Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of social awkwardness, the Edwardses continue to manage their lives and their image here.

Much of that life is hidden behind the dense trees and No Trespassing signs on their property west of downtown Chapel Hill, where they live with their two school-age children, Emma Claire and Jack. (Cate, the oldest surviving child, graduated last year from Harvard Law School.)

In June, local columnist Hal Crowther spotted the family having a peaceful, unremarkable meal at Aki Hana, the sushi restaurant owned by Crowther's family. But on another occasion, he heard that the mood among patrons was icy.

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