John Edwards Should Serve His Penance, Like Clarence Darrow, In Court

Edwards should do his penance in court

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Does John Edwards have a future in politics?

Given the fact that other acknowledged sinners - Bill Clinton, John McCain and Newt Gingrich come readily to mind – have reclaimed public respectability after treating their wives like disposable wipes, this is not an idle question.

The comeback trail is well-blazed. A few self-scourging appearances on 60 Minutes, Ellen, or The View. Some choreographed photo ops in a tool belt and blue denim work shirt, repairing houses for the poor. The well-publicized embrace of a humanitarian cause, preferably one that helps Third World children.

The course is there. But Edwards should choose a different path. Having confessed his sins, he should return to the law, and do his penance in the courtroom.

If he is any kind of human being, Edwards has a lot of work ahead of him: helping his dying wife cope with his betrayal, repairing his relationships with his children, and apologizing to the Democrats he recruited to help make him president.

Just think of where the Democratic Party would be today, had Edwards won the nomination, and then been exposed as an adulterer a month before the convention. We, all of us, are sinners. But Democrats should make it clear to Edwards, and he should accept the fact, that such treachery is a political career killer.

Instead, Edwards should return to the law, where he excelled as a plaintiff’s attorney before running for the Senate in North Carolina .

Innocents accused. The forgotten residents of New Orleans . Death row inmates. Guantanamo ’s prisoners. Victims of corporate greed and malfeasance. Think of the lost souls who could use the talents of so skilled an attorney, and of the spotlight Edwards could cast on injustice as he took their sides in court.

In doing so, Edwards would follow the path of the greatest of American defense attorneys, Clarence Darrow.

In 1911, Darrow left Chicago for Los Angeles , to defend James and J.J. McNamara, two union men accused of killing 20 printers and newspapermen in the bombing of the The Los Angeles Times, a famously anti-labor paper. Darrow was at the height of his fame as a labor lawyer. The McNamara defense, he believed, would be the capstone to his career.

Instead, Darrow crawled back to Chicago in 1913, his personal and professional life in shambles. His defense team was caught red-handed, bribing jurors. The McNamaras were found guilty and dispatched to San Quentin. He was charged with bribery and put on trial twice, narrowly escaping prison himself. And it was in Los Angeles that Darrow’s wife learned the scope of his serial adultery.

“He is scared,” the muckraker Lincoln Steffens wrote of his friend Darrow. “The cynic is humbled; the man that laughed sees and is frightened, not at prison bars, but at his own soul.”

Darrow started over in Chicago ’s criminal courts, taking cases where he could find them. He saved Isaac Bond, a black man accused of strangling a white nurse, from the gallows. In the Red Scare that followed World War I, Darrow represented Communists. His eloquent plea against the death penalty kept Leopold and Loeb, the teenage thrill-killers, from the hangman’s noose. He defended academic freedom and the teaching of evolution in the Great Monkey Trial of 1925.

And then, nearing 70, in what may be his greatest triumph, Darrow won liberty for a group of young black men and women who, while defending the home Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American physician who had moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit, killed a member of a menacing, rock-throwing white mob.

Edwards is 55, the very age at which Darrow was put on trial for bribing the McNamara jury. Humiliated, bowed and desperate, Darrow did not know that his greatest days lay before him. Let that someday be said of John Edwards.