John Edwards Doctor's Notes Push Back Trial: Is He Really Sick?

Kent Sepkowitz on whether John Edwards' doctor's notes are a delay tactic or verification of a true health threat.

Of all the societal powers, real or imagined, ascribed to a doctor, only one really matters: the authority to write the doctor's note. Yes, the doctor's note, eternal friend of the gym-class challenged, the too lazy to show up on time, the holder of the expensive unused airline tickets. I still get a thrill from its sheer power as I turn one out: "Mr John Q. Citizen is a patient under my care. Because of his medical condition, please excuse him from [insert your alibi here]."

Given its traditionally domestic uses, it was a bit of a shock to read yesterday that a doctor's note had crossed into the blood sport of American politics. Former senator John Edwards played the doctor's-note card in his federal trial for alleged campaign violations relating to the flow of money in and out of his 2008 presidential campaign. Judge Catherine Eagles has not one but two doctor's notes attesting that Edwards has a serious heart condition that “could be life threatening” if left untreated—though curiously, not so life-threatening as to need attention right now. Based on the notes, Judge Eagles rescheduled the trial for no earlier than March 26.

This trial, by the way, is not to be confused with the much more lurid and enjoyable civil trial, also scheduled for March 26, when Rielle Hunter brings charges against Andrew Young, the Edwards aide who allegedly has in his possession a smoking sex tape of the pair.

We can cobble together a good guess as to what is plaguing Edwards with the few details we have been given. He has had a few episodes of symptoms, though he remains active. His anticipated hospitalization after the procedure is a few days only. Given these puzzle parts, I suspect he has intermittent atrial fibrillation and requires a procedure called ablation, where a cardiologist painstakingly maps out every millimeter of your heart muscle to find the itchy fiber or two that has been causing the trouble, and then zaps it. It’s now a routine procedure with multiple U.S. centers of excellence. Yes, it knocks you out for a day or two afterward, but in the context of what we think about when we think about heart surgery, it’s no big deal—though it is not a walk in the park either.

He also might have a heart-valve problem, but recovery from repair of these generally takes longer than a few days. And of course he could always have coronary artery disease, even though he's a skinny guy. After all, he comes from a blue-collar background deep in tobacco country, as he reminded us endlessly during his stump speeches. However, I can’t imagine them waiting a few weeks to remedy such a problem. Usually a person has a twinge of pain, gets zoomed to a hospital, and on to the catheterization suite, where a balloon or a laser or a something re-opens any clogged up arteries. Time is of the essence.

Sooner than later, some beans will be spilled and we will know what Edwards has and can then determine whether he actually is sick or is simply looking for a way to delay the trial. We surely have seen conveniently timed pre-trial illnesses in the past. Perhaps the most famous, though most poorly acted, was that of the “Oddfather,” Vincent “Chin” Gigante, a reputed member of the Genovese mob family who tried to pushed back his trial date by acting crazy.

A more common illness that occurs before trials is sudden death, be it from suicide or a series of unfortunate and lethal events. Enron's Kenny Lay and Cliff Baxter met their very timely ends just as the judicial system was beginning to put the squeeze on them. Others in this very large category include David Kelley, Britain’s Deep Throat during the investigations of possibly cooked intelligence that led to the Iraq War; William Colby, the former CIA chief whose “suicide” is the subject of a movie by his son; and of course, the doyen of all strangely timed deaths, Karen Silkwood, the labor-union activist who was killed in a car wreck.

But before we assume that Edwards is pulling another fast one, we should consider the events that surrounded another American scoundrel: Richard M. Nixon. After resigning the presidency, Nixon famously choppered off the White House lawn and headed to California. Unpardoned (briefly) at the time, much speculation centered around how he might be forced to come clean.

But rather than face the glare of cameras or the hushed soporific of a Barbara Walters interview, he got sick, or, as many figured, “got sick.” Nixon didn’t use a doctor’s note; he simply had his people announce that he was ill—very ill in fact—with thrombophlebitis (blood clots in his legs.) Not surprisingly, Nixon’s word was not exactly accepted as truth any more than news about the health of the Pope or Kim Jong-il. Nixon haters were convinced the Tricky One was doing his usual—lying and delaying and avoiding. Their temperature and moral outrage, briefly becalmed by his recent humiliation, began to rise once again.

Strangely enough, as the years have gone by and incontrovertible truth has emerged from the smoke and mirrors and briefcases that were the Nixon White House, it has become clear that in fact Nixon had had a severe episode of thrombophlebitis. Not only that, but he also had its dreaded complication, which happens when the clot in the leg becomes dislodged and flows downstream to the lung, the pulmonary embolus, a leading cause of death in the U.S. As difficult as it was (and is) to believe, Nixon wasn’t lying.

So, too, I suspect with John Edwards. Though I imagine he gladly would have used a doctor’s note to keep him away from what’s ahead, he’s a lawyer and knows he’s in the hottest of water and that he can’t stall forever. Plus, as a politician he knows how fishy this heart mumbo jumbo looks. Though it is tempting to enjoy the sight of a politician hoist with his own petard, we should give the poor guy a pass. As the facts come out, the judicial system, which Edwards knows so well, will apply something far harsher than anything we can dish out.