For John Edwards, Isolation Is a Symbol of His Downfall
Last year, by then under criminal indictment, John Edwards sat with a longtime friend in the 10,000-square-foot house that is the centerpiece of his 102-acre Chapel Hill estate. The friend, a New Jersey lawyer named Glenn Bergenfield who had attended law school with Edwards, was one of the select few members of a diminishing club: those whom the disgraced Edwards wanted to see, and those who wanted to see him.
Sometimes Bergenfield just listened. Edwards always talked about his children and often of his late wife, Elizabeth, and, after a while, he usually got around to the matter of Rielle Hunter, the woman with whom he had an affair and a child. These were the characters of the soap opera that Edwards’s life had descended to — the Would-Be President, the Other Woman, the Love Child, the Courageous Wife, the Dying Wife — but here in this large, lonesome house, the conversations were intimate and introspective. Edwards sounded utterly befuddled by what he had done, as if he were talking about a stranger.
His confusion extended to the latest chapter in the drama — criminal charges alleging that in an effort to conceal his affair during the height of his 2008 presidential campaign, he illegally arranged for secret contributions of about $1 million to take care of Hunter’s needs as she prepared to give birth to their daughter, Quinn. Sometimes his painful bouts of self-analysis turned to frustration over his belief that he had been singled out among a long list of philandering politicians, living and dead, for pariah status.
“He knows he made mistakes,” Bergenfield says on the eve of Edwards’s trial, which is set to begin Thursday with jury selection. “But John thinks that the treatment of him is so unflinchingly horrible and that what he did is not so different from what others did — JFK, Clinton, the whole rogues’ gallery. We’ve had this conversation about his situation, and I remember he did compare it to Clinton. He said, ‘I did a horrendous thing, but I don’t know why I’m getting such an unforgiving treatment when you think of what other people have done.’ ”
The more Edwards talked, the more Bergenfield would do his best to buoy him. He also wanted to lend his support to the two Edwards children living at home, Emma Claire, 13, and Jack, 11. He is godfather to Jack, as he was to Edwards’s oldest son, Wade, who died in a car accident in 1996 and is buried alongside his mother.
At times, though, Bergenfield found himself scanning the house, whose every feature owes its existence to the dreams of Elizabeth, with whom Bergenfield’s friendship had been even tighter than with Edwards, so close that he had delivered a eulogy at her funeral. “Every floor tile, every post in it, it’s her,” Bergenfield says, grateful for how the house serves as a bond to his departed friend.
But what must it be for Edwards, he wonders. This is where Edwards spends most of his time now, preparing for his trial. “Being in the house is a reminder of Elizabeth for John,” he says. “And that means the other things, too. I think it’s hard for him to be there without thinking about what a horrible mess this has all been, about all his mistakes and regrets. He has said as much to me.”