John Edwards' Indictment Could Set New Campaign Law Standard

Prosecutors are looking at whether the money paid to Rielle Hunter constitutes an illegal political donation.

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John Edwards, many would agree, is quite a jerk. But is he a criminal?

The former North Carolina senator, Democratic vice presidential nominee and presidential primary contender was indicted today on charges that he funneled money from campaign donors to pay for the coverup of his affair with Rielle Hunter. While someone’s extramarital affairs are arguably no one’s business but that of the individuals involved and their families, Edwards’s relationship, and his handling of it, rise to a new and public level.

He lied about the affair, which he conducted while his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was battling breast cancer. He tried to make it appear that the child produced from his relationship with Hunter was, in fact, the spawn of a campaign staffer. And he did all of this while he was running for president. [Read: Why Don't Men Like Schwarzenegger, Edwards Use Condoms?]

That’s all very distasteful, to say the least. But what is less clear is whether Edwards is guilty of an actual crime. Prosecutors are looking at whether the money paid to Hunter and the former campaign aide constitute some sort of illegal political donation, since covering up the affair had the effect of improving Edwards’s public image—such as it was. By that logic, almost anything could be construed as a political donation—if someone offered to mow his lawn, is that an illegal in-kind contribution, since a well-manicured lawn makes someone look like an upstanding homeowner, and therefore a more attractive candidate? Haircuts, teeth-cleanings—is anything turned into a campaign event, just because it affects someone’s image in front of the electorate? [Read: Elizabeth Edwards—a Courageous Inspiration.]

Elizabeth Edwards’s death from cancer last year was tragic, made sadder still by the very pubic revelation of her husband’s betrayal of her. There is a natural desire to want to punish Edwards in some way, if only to avenge his deceased wife. Prosecutors may succeed in doing so—and if they do, they will establish a sweeping new standard for candidates for public office.

  • Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.
  • Read: Why Don't Men Like Schwarzenegger, Edwards Use Condoms?
  • Read: Elizabeth Edwards—a Courageous Inspiration.