• Politics

Can John Edwards’ Dreadful Image Be Rehabilitated?

5 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

There’s unpopular, there’s widely loathed, there’s despised, and then there’s John Edwards. Americans are a tolerant people, but they have a line, and evidently when you cheat on your cancer-stricken wife, lie about it to everyone while running for President and then decline to acknowledge fathering a love child for two years, you’ve crossed it. Given the towering stack of strikes against him, can Edwards resume any kind of public life? Short of curing his wife’s cancer, is there anything he could do to get people to at least tolerate him?

According to a recent poll, the former presidential candidate is now historically disfavored. After taking the opinions of 678 North Carolina voters, Public Policy Polling announced on Jan. 19 that with a 15% approval rate, Edwards was the most unpopular person it had ever polled — and this is from the state that gave us Jesse Helms. Another poll named him the most disappointing person of 2009. Yes, Edwards has come a long way from those blissful days when all most people hated him for was his $400 haircuts.

(See the top 10 scandals of 2009.)

Image consultants and p.r. managers, who are professionally optimistic, say it’s possible for him to rehabilitate his public image, but it won’t be easy. First up, he has to come totally clean, and he has to do so in front of a camera. On Jan. 21, just shy of Quinn Hunter’s second birthday, Edwards finally issued a statement that copped to his being her father. “It was wrong for me ever to deny she was my daughter, and hopefully one day, when she understands, she will forgive me,” the press release said. Nuh-uh. For a doozy like that, you have to front up personally, say the experts. “I can’t emphasize enough — the tone of voice is the most important element,” says Mike Sitrick of the p.r. firm Sitrick and Company. “This is an art, not a science.”

Sitrick also believes the former Senator needs to recruit the missus, Elizabeth Edwards. “If she said, ‘He breached the most important thing we had, which is trust, and I’m hurt beyond words, but I believe in him,’ she’d get Mother Teresa status and it would help him with his biggest problem, which is the credibility,” says Sitrick. This could be tough, however, since two new books, one of which is by Edwards’ former aide Andrew Young, a.k.a. the guy who originally claimed to be Quinn’s dad, cast both Edwardses in a bad light, and Elizabeth may not want to put herself out there to face uncomfortable questions.

(See the top 10 political gaffes.)

“He’s not electable, and no American President is ever going to appoint him to anything,” says Kevin Sullivan, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush and now a p.r. consultant. “But the American public is very forgiving.” Sullivan, who admits he’d never take Edwards on as a client, nevertheless had some advice: tell it first, tell it all and tell it yourself. The ship has sailed on a couple of those — unless of course, there are more skeletons in the Edwards’ well-appointed closets. So even though some people are begging Edwards to just go away, he needs to fess up to anything else, now, before the National Enquirer digs it up. The Enquirer, incidentally, is submitting its coverage of Edwards for a Pulitzer Prize — another specter for which we can thank the Senator from North Carolina.

“If I were John Edwards, I’d try to concentrate all the bad news at once,” says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Kellogg School of Management. “Get it out of the way. And then focus on replacing it with good news.” When Tiger Woods starts to play good golf, his transgressions will fade from memory. Unlike Woods, however, Edwards doesn’t have any public venues he can easily hop back into.

Politics is out. Dancing with the Stars only takes politicians who are mildly loathed, like Tom DeLay. He probably can’t even do a book. “I would not be at all interested in him or his story,” says a publisher who has had success with celebrity memoirs. “I can’t imagine — and I have a good imagination — what he could possibly write about that people would pay money for or that would be credible.”

A lot of Edwards’ future depends on what he wants to do. If he’s set on being in the public eye, he’s leaning into a stiff wind. If he just wants to do public service, he’ll be fine. Before he drove his career into a crater for an astrology-spouting blonde, he had a good record on fighting poverty, and the media can be relied on to ignore him if he continues to work on that issue. He, among many others, went to Haiti this week, without cameras. John Edwards may never be liked again, but with a lot of effort, he could claw his way back to being ignored.

Read “John Edwards Sex Tape with Rielle Hunter Alleged in Andrew Young Book.”

See pictures of John Edwards’ Road to One America tour.

See the top 10 news stories of 2009.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com