06.19.11

Edwards’s Life in Exile

In John Edwards’s hometown, residents are disgusted by the fallen former presidential candidate's cheating on Elizabeth Edwards. Michelle Cottle visits Chapel Hill, where people snicker about his nightlife and his visits to his wife and son’s graves as tour buses drive by.

Situated at the corner of Columbia and Franklin streets in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Spanky’s Restaurant and Bar isn’t known so much for its food as for the black-framed caricatures of prominent patrons that adorn its walls: sports stars, media personalities, politicians. In the top corner spot nearest the front window hangs a likeness of former Senator John Edwards, arguably the town’s most famous—now infamous—resident. The sly, flirty grin is unmistakable, and the extravagantly peaked eyebrows give Edwards’ image a faintly diabolical air. At a nearby table, a chunky middle-aged guy sporting a ball cap tucks into a late lunch and begins musing loudly to his companions about how someone needs to take down the disgraced senator’s picture. Pronto.

The gentleman is not alone in his disgust. When I ask the lanky, fresh-faced barkeep, recent UNC graduate Sam Ward, how often customers come in demanding to know when Edwards’ picture will be removed, he doesn’t hesitate. “Every day,” he sighs. Every. Single. Day. “I don’t know when it’s going to happen,” says Ward. “But it needs to. I hear they’re thinking of putting up a picture of Elizabeth Edwards in its place.”

The unmaking of a man is a process both sudden and gradual. Following the initial blast to Edwards’ reputation in mid-2008, when news of his marital misdeeds became Topic A, the former senator and erstwhile presidential candidate slipped into what may be best described as the long fade. His honor and influence in tatters, he was cut loose by many friends and political colleagues. (“There’s not a lot of people still speaking to him at this point,” observes someone close to the family.) Bit by bit, the projects he launched at the height of his promise have folded or aggressively distanced themselves from him. Around Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill, where he once loomed so large, Edwards has become at once a joke and an object of anger and derision. Following his June 3 arraignment on charges of violating federal campaign-finance laws, his profile has fallen lower still, as the defendant hunkers down inside his Chapel Hill estate with his children and his legal team. Having strived for a quarter-century to make his mark, Edwards now finds himself being scrubbed from the scene, piece by piece, fingerprint by fingerprint. Despite all the tabloid pieces and salacious rumors, the grainy photos and legal melodrama, he is steadily dissolving before our eyes.

On Friday, June 10, exactly one week after his circus-like arraignment at the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, Edwards quietly turned 58 years old. The former senator marked the day at home in Chapel Hill with daughter Cate, 29, and son Jack, 11. (Daughter Emma, 13, was away at summer camp.) I marked the day by exploring some of Edwards’s haunts, both old and new, to get a sense of how much life has changed for him—to glimpse just how far the mighty have fallen.

The first, inescapable fact on the ground is that the folks around Raleigh and Chapel Hill are not yet in a forgiving mood. While legal experts debate the merits of the Justice Department’s case against Edwards, the hometown crowd has issued its own, more personal verdict: Depending on whom you ask, the man is “a snake,” “a scumbag,” or, as Betty Henderson, receptionist at the Edwardses’ longtime church home in Raleigh, eloquently put it, “a narcissist so in love with himself that he can’t see past his own desires.”

Depending on whom you ask, the man is “a snake,” “a scumbag,” or…“a narcissist so in love with himself that he can’t see past his own desires.”

Home may be the place where they always have to take you in—but that doesn’t mean they have to like it.

You can’t walk a block in these parts without running into someone who has a tale of John Edwards after the fall—often secondhand and overwhelmingly unflattering. In some instances, the anecdotes revolve around Edwards’ discomfort with his new infamy. A local ABC news cameraman, for instance, was yelled at by an irate Edwards this month when the guy took a picture of the senator at one of Jack’s little league games. “Edwards sits all by himself at the games,” observes the cameraman.

Even more common is the snickering over Edwards’s nightlife. Particularly during the period when Elizabeth kicked him out of the house and he was living in an apartment near the main drag where UNC students congregate, Edwards was a fixture at area watering holes. The hipsterish Bowbarr, right next door to the Rosemary Street highrise in which Edwards lived, was a favorite spot for him to unwind and chat up the (young, pretty) clientele. But there have been sightings of the senator exercising his legendary charm at plenty of other area bars as well. “He’s not shy,” chuckles Mike, a balding, bespectacled bartender at Crooks’ Corner, one of the Edwards clan’s favorite eateries in sunnier times.

Not everyone around town is eager to dish about the ex-senator. At Chapel Hill’s Carolina Inn, for instance, the desk clerk got a deer-in-the-headlights look when I mentioned I was writing a piece about the Edwardses, who had a soft spot for the stately 1924 Inn. The couple not only had their wedding reception there in 1977, but, 30 years later, also used it for their 2007 press conference announcing the return of Elizabeth’s cancer.

Those whose fortunes are even vaguely linked to the Edwardses can sound pained when his name comes up. Of the three poverty-related projects the senator rolled out with great hoopla in the wake of his 2004 White House odyssey, two have been shuttered. In 2008, the week before he at last admitted his affair with Rielle Hunter, Edwards axed the College for Everyone scholarship program he’d launched at Greene Central High School in eastern North Carolina. His Washington-based nonprofit, the Center for Promise and Opportunity, dwindled around the same time. The sole survivor is the UNC School of Law’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, which Edwards helped found in 2005 and then led for two years. The center’s current director, Gene Nichol, was the law school’s dean back then and helped Edwards get the center rolling. Today, Nichol comes across as downright crabby when asked about the senator. “He has no involvement with the Poverty Center and hasn't had any involvement for many years,” Nichol stressed (repeatedly) via email, adding that he is weary of constantly being asked to comment on the impact of Edwards’ situation on the center’s work. “Nothing new to add,” insisted Nichol, who noted he has not spoken to Edwards “for a very long time.”

The staff at the Wade Edwards Learning Lab, the computer study center John and Elizabeth set up as a memorial for their first child, who died at age 16, are less testy but no less anxious when discussing the senator. Sarah Lowder, longtime director of the WELL’s parent foundation, was loath to chat or even have me visit the lab. The WELL’s assistant director, Spencer Weeks-Jamieson, gamely takes me on a quickie tour when I drop by, but he smiles nervously when talk turns to the increasingly limited role that Edwards, the foundation’s chairman, is able to play. Indeed, Weeks-Jamieson (who started with the WELL as a student volunteer in 2001) notes that, when Elizabeth’s health began failing last year, the Wade Foundation scrambled to ensure the lab would be self-perpetuating. Most notably, the board signed up seven new trustees, including six former classmates of Wade’s, to help keep the cause alive.

Weeks-Jamieson is clearly more at ease talking about Cate Edwards, who also sits on the board. Indeed, Cate is spoken of with admiration, approval, and sympathy around these parts almost as much as her father is spoken of in scorn. “People feel sorry for the kids,” says Lorna, a UNC senior and Raleigh native who works at a clothing boutique near campus (and whose favorite high school teacher was Elizabeth Edwards’ best friend.) “Elizabeth’s funeral was so sad.”

Cate’s staunch support of her father in these trying times—most dramatically her appearance with him at his recent arraignment—is a particular source of Southern pride. As one person close to Cate tells it, Elizabeth made it clear before her death that she wanted Cate to stand by John and help him be a strong, involved father. But people around Raleigh and Chapel Hill see it more simply: “If Cate was raised right—and she was—she’ll support her dad,” says one resident who dealt with the family. “Her mama raised her to be strong,” agrees church receptionist Betty Henderson. This is a good thing, people around town agree, because if the former senator ends up in prison—and no one seems especially torn up at the thought—Cate will wind up responsible for her much younger siblings. 

Out at Oakwood Cemetery, Elizabeth Anania Edwards was laid to rest on a quiet, gentle slope beside her son, Wade. It has been six months since her funeral, and the June sun has begun to crisp and crinkle the small pink rosebushes bedecking her grave. Nearby stands a large marble bench engraved with Wade’s name. According to cemetery staff, the senator comes frequently to visit his wife and son. There Edwards sits as the tour buses come rolling by. (Oakwood is a historic site with an entire section devoted to fallen Confederate soldiers.) Observes one staffer, “How humiliating it must be for him to be sitting out there with all those people [gawking and whispering.]”

But this is what Edwards has been relegated to: a morbid curiosity, a cautionary tale, a punchline to off-color jokes.

As the ex-senator’s birthday eases into evening, I head for the Carolina Inn, which is hosting one of its Fridays on the Front Porch concerts. On a wide, warm swath of green lawn, families mingle, sipping beer and sodas as Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojo churns out bluegrass with a zydeco edge. A sunny, blond co-ed named Cam, home from North Carolina State for the summer, sits at a large folding table, handing out paper fans and selling drink tickets. When I ask what she and her friends think of the Edwards mess, she gets a shy, wicked smile. “Have you been to Spanky’s yet?” she asks, mentioning the notorious caricature. “Some of the locals want his picture moved back into the restroom,” she says, clearly tickled by the idea. “Hang it up on a wall of shame.”

For now, that may be the best John Edwards can hope for.