Dispatch February 2010

Is John Edwards Done Forever?

Other politicians have come back from scandal. Can he? We ask nine image experts how they’d rebuild his brand.

Richard Nixon used foreign policy, Michael Milken used philanthropy, and Eliot Spitzer railed against Wall Street. The magic of public relations gurus has transformed criminals into philanthropists and disgraced politicians into respected commentators, but are some reputations beyond saving?

Every time John Edwards' tale of lies and adultery seems to have reached its sordid limit, a newly depraved twist arises. Is Edwards unsalvageable? Could he ever return to any form of public life? We asked a chorus of Dark Arts practitioners.

Forget About It: Bob Shrum, who worked with Edwards on his 1998 Senate run and 2004 vice presidential bid, sees no hope of a rebound: "The reality is so contrary to the image that he projected," said the veteran political consultant. "By the time 2002 came around, I had my own questions about how serious he was and how ready he was to run for president but I never would have imagined that things went as far as they obviously did by 2007, 2008 ...  I regret that I was complicit in picking him."

Move to Pitcairn Island
: Republican strategist John Weaver advises Edwards to "buy a satellite dish and move to the island where the Bounty crashed in the South Pacific." He says that John and Elizabeth Edwards "made a calculated decision to highlight, which is the word I'm going to use, her illness, in a way that gave a lot of courage to people stricken with cancer, but they did highlight it. So to cheat on her and lie when he did and to be so publicly supportive of her on the one hand and on the other hand carrying on this relationship to the point that his own believers, his staff, had their stomachs turn over... He just can't come back from that politically."

Go on Oprah: "This whole notion of whether you're damaged goods or not has really changed in the last four or five years," said Peter Mirijanian of Mirijanian PR. " The public used to count people out and you wouldn't hear from them again. That's not the case anymore. There are so many ways to rehabilitate yourself ... The American public likes a feel-good story, they like a story of redemption." Five years ago, the well-trod path was to go on Larry King; today, it begins on Oprah. Edwards has "got to do the one interview. And I think it has to be a visual medium. I don't think the full-page story in the New York Times cuts it."
 
Do Good: "This sounds so cheesy, but find your personal journey," said Steven Rubenstein of Rubenstein Communications. "Try to do something good and not focus on your public profile, and then if the opportunity to do something public presents itself, consider it then ... If all you're thinking about is your return, I don't think you're going to get there. You're trying to cure the symptom, not the problem."
  
 Drop Off the Map
: Earlier in the career of Jonathan L. Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management, he was approached by people representing the recently deposed Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. "If anybody approached me on behalf of Edwards, I'd tell them the same thing I told Marcos' people: 'I don't think there's anything I can do for you right now.' That said, I think if he can drop under the public radar for a period of some years, get involved in some charitable do-gooding activities, and not do anything else that he could be criticized for, ultimately he could rehabilitate himself. Bill Clinton did."

 Give Something Back: "I think there's an awful lot of good John can do," said consultant Tad Devine of Devine Mulvey, who worked on Edwards' 1998 Senate campaign. "He's gifted, he's got a lot of talent and passion. I think the best possible thing he could do would be to give back to people -- give his time, his expertise. At the center of his presidential campaigns was to do something about the pervasive poverty in America. The way to do that would be to build on what he's already done and try to find some things that would work in the real world and to go out and fund them. And then on the basis of that good work, redeem himself."
 
 Give Up: "Can he start a charity or do something in academia? Of course, but this guy didn't tell lies, he was lies," said Eric Dezenhall of Dezenhall Resources.  "And I think in the political sphere, outside of maybe years from now doing something on the local level, he's done. I've never seen anything quite like this ... In almost 30 years of doing this, I have never been in a client situation where there was a quixotic and completely immoral and pre-meditated program to lie about virtually everything all the time."
 
Focus on Fatherhood: Edwards has “an opportunity to come across as an outstanding and doting father in a way that most other men who stray don’t. And I do believe the American people like and respect people who are good parents,” said David Heller, president of Main Street Communications.

Outlast Your Ex: One prominent PR consultant voiced what others were too polite to say (but only, of course, on the condition of anonymity): John Edwards will have a hard time venturing back into the public eye as long as his wife is present to remind Americans of the scope of his betrayal. "I honestly don't believe he can make a true comeback until well after Elizabeth has passed away," the consultant said. "As long as she is alive, his comeback chances are dead."

Presented by

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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