Three months after confessing to an affair on national TV, John Edwards ended his self-imposed exile this week with a pair of appearances that could mark his first steps on a road to public rehabilitation.
The former Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator debated Republican strategist Karl Rove in San Francisco Thursday, two days after speaking at Indiana University.
“It's a very good way to just poke your head out a little bit, see what happens, see what public reaction is like,” says Jonathan Bernstein, a California-based crisis management consultant. “Humility and honesty go a long way to repairing an image.”
At a time when he once hoped to be headed for the White House, Edwards has found himself the subject of gossip columns speculating about his marriage and the child of his former mistress.
“He is working on the issue with his family, but also working on the topic of poverty that is very critical to him and shouldn't be completely overshadowed by everything else,” says friend John Moylan, a Columbia lawyer.
Edwards could not be reached.
In August he acknowledged an affair with former campaign worker Rielle Hunter. Though he'd already asked an aide to draft a speech for the Democratic convention, he was not invited.
He canceled several fall speaking engagements, saying he wanted to stay out of public view until after the election in order not to distract from Barack Obama's campaign.
More questions likely
Edwards' wife Elizabeth, who is fighting incurable cancer, has generally avoided questions about the affair. But in a September interview with the Detroit Free Press, she said she didn't want her husband's tabloid image to be the one her children “carry with them as young people and as adults.”
John Edwards is also sidestepping personal questions.
After his speech about politics and poverty at Indiana on Tuesday – for which he was paid $35,000 – he took only 13 written questions. He made no mention of his wife or his affair.
But the questions are unlikely to stop.
His friend Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas trial lawyer, died last month. After the National Enquirer first published reports of Edwards' affair, he helped Hunter and former Edwards aide Andrew Young relocate from Chapel Hill to California. He reportedly paid Hunter $15,000 a month.
Young, who is married, has claimed he's the father of Hunter's daughter, who was born in February. Baron helped Young's family settle in a house valued at nearly $2 million in Santa Barbara, Calif. Young has since moved to a new home on a 10-acre lot outside Chapel Hill.
Neither he nor Hunter could be reached. This week the Enquirer reported that Hunter plans to write a tell-all book if the money stops.
“We're interested in the story,” says Enquirer editor David Perel. “We still think it's relevant because (Edwards) still hasn't told the full truth.”
Focus on poverty
At Indiana, Edwards called eliminating poverty “the central cause” of his life.
“The truth is he very much wants to be involved in working on poverty issues,” says Moylan. “That is critically important to him. They are figuring out the best way to do that. It's important that that not get completely overshadowed by everything going on in the world, including his world.”
Edwards is no longer affiliated with the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity that he helped start at UNC Chapel Hill.
“I know he'll continue to support the ideals of the Center but there is no expectation that Sen. Edwards would return,” said center director Gene Nichol.
One Edwards initiative, the nonprofit Center for Promise and Opportunity, has shut down. Another, a program that provided college scholarships in poverty-stricken Greene County and which Edwards touted as a national model, ends in May.
Edwards wouldn't be the first celebrity to make a comeback after a dramatic fall.
“If John Edwards continues to behave as an exemplary public citizen for a period of time, his image can be repaired,” says Bernstein, the crisis management consultant. “He can appear publicly without fear of public ridicule as long as he stays humble, relatively low-key and does things that are of real use or value to his fellow citizens. And if there are no more secrets that will hurt him.”