UPDATE: With Elizabeth Edwards' TV blitz for her book tour, The Daily Beast talks to John Edwards' former aides about why they wish the ongoing comeback attempt would stop.
ORIGINAL POST, 11/16: As John Edwards attempts one of the more awkward comebacks in recent political history, his former aides told The Daily Beast that they would rather see their former boss remain in exile. "I think it would behoove Senator Edwards to continue staying out of the limelight for a longer period of time and let the country move on," said one former campaign aide. Instead, on Thursday, Edwards joined GOP macher Karl Rove for a surreal 90-minute debate at the Commercial Finance Association convention in San Francisco.
"[John Edwards] has no clue—he has no idea where to go," the former staffer said. "He has no map.”
Though the gig was presumably booked months in advance, it became a stop on the John Edwards comeback tour—a tentative public re-emergence since Edwards admitted to an affair with Rielle Hunter back in August. Two days earlier, Edwards made his first public appearance, delivering a speech on politics and poverty at Indiana University. Afterward, Edwards answered pre-approved questions, discoursing on his favorite superhero (Superman) but never addressing the scandal.
According to a top staffer on his 2008 presidential campaign, Edwards has not yet come to terms with just how far he has fallen. "He has no clue—he has no idea where to go," the staffer said. "He has no map. Here's a guy who was at the center of the debate in moving things forward and all of a sudden he has no road map to get to that place. There probably is no road map to get to that place and he doesn't know it." Other ex-colleagues, like David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist who was a senior advisor on Edwards' 2008 campaign, sounded more open to the idea of a comeback.
"The guy is a Jacksonian Democrat and he's out preaching the gospel of social justice and economic fairness, and I think there ought to be more of us out there preaching it," Saunders said.
None of the former staffers said they had talked to Edwards since he admitted the affair, and none presumed to know his intentions. Edwards could simply want to add his voice to the political debate or be trying something as ambitious (and likely hopeless) as auditioning for a spot in the Obama administration.
But it’s unclear whether Edwards has any hope for a turnaround. Bill Clinton remains respected despite an affair with an intern, thanks to high approval ratings in office and the fact the media was aware of Clinton's carousing long before the Lewinsky scandal broke. By contrast, Edwards ran in 2008 as a devoted father and husband and put his family at the center of the campaign. His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was a kind of secular saint. (Frank Rich titled a column about her battle with cancer "Elizabeth Edwards For President.”) Last month, Elizabeth Edwards delivered a speech on health care policy—sans wedding ring, according to The Washington Post —and she currently advises Obama on healthcare despite publicly criticizing his plan for reform.
Edwards' other problem is that he has not fully come clean about his relationship. Despite offering to take a DNA test in an interview with Bob Woodruff on ABC's Nightline, he has not proven that he is not the father of Rielle Hunter's child. Some have challenged his assertion that his affair with Hunter began only after he had hired her to produce films for the campaign. There are also unanswered questions surrounding the thousands of dollars in payments to Hunter made by Edwards' finance chairman, Fred Baron, who claimed that Edwards had no knowledge of the transactions. Baron died last month after a struggle with cancer.
One colleague, who has not spoken to Edwards since the scandal broke, recommended that the former candidate let his actions speak for themselves if he wants to recover his public image.
"If I were giving advice, it wouldn't be to talk, it would be to go down to New Orleans and start building houses again, creating a way for young people to come down there and work with him. I don't understand how anybody could argue with that and it's where his heart is," the aide said, "Trying to go around and give speeches to 1,000 people, I just think: 'To what end?' I don't think anyone is going to let him into the administration." Still, the ex-colleague hoped that Edwards could some day contribute in some form as an advocate for working Americans. "For all his now obvious flaws, he really does care deeply about poverty, for one, and health care and he pushed both those items further on the national agenda than they would have gone if he had not run," the aide said, "I would not want to lose that voice."
Benjamin Sarlin covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com. He is a graduate of Vassar College.