Anatomy of a crisis and coverup, the John Edwards trial

A Greensboro, NC jury will ultimately decide if former presidential candidate and North Carolina senator John Edwards improperly used nearly $1 million in campaign funds to maintain and hide his mistress, Rielle Hunter.

The jury of public opinion long ago found Edwards guilty of being a narcissistic cad, having an affair in 2008 as he ran for president and his popular and successful wife Elizabeth slowly died of cancer.

The value of this trial for crisis managers is the unraveling of layer after layer of coverup, lies, stupid mistakes, bad judgment and, frankly lunacy — and here we refer to Edwards’ decision making, not his reference to Hunter as “a crazy slut.” Enough craziness existed in this Shakespearian drama to fill a psych textbook.

Andrew Young, Edwards’ main facilitator and enabler, is also the prosecution’s star witness. Can you imagine the married Young’s explanation to his own wife as to why he had to claim paternity for Edwards’ child with Hunter and then that Hunter would have to live with them? I can’t even bring myself to speculate about those two conversations.

But like Iranian scientists are trying to do with a downed Sentinel drone that wandered over its territory and crashed, we can reverse-engineer this mess of an Edwards crisis through the trial. The whole as its disassembled parts.

Edwards apparently embarked on an affair and still ran for president. Living a lie, or multiple ones, is not the foundation of a presidential candidacy. That’s a crisis right there.

Can anyone imagine what would have happened if he’d won!? Next, he fathered a child with Hunter and had to hide that fact and her. This is a crisis taught and solved in high-school sex ed class, folks.

If he’d stopped there, his political career was over; his friends would have abandoned him; and his picture would forever be on a milk carton under the headline — Worst Husband Ever. But he wouldn’t be facing 30 to life and a $1.5 million fine.

But, noooooooo. He had Young call Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and ask for money, suggesting Young tell her it was for a new house Edwards was building. I’m not sure which is sicker, the ask, or that someone in the Mellon family would believe the ask.

But there’s no doubt that’s where the crisis peaked and Edwards became an accused felon.

Layer after sick layer peeled back show the people in the thick of this crisis amplified it rather than defused it. We should assume these are reasonably intelligent and capable people. Edwards did run for veep in ’04 before the affair. Presumably the John Kerry campaign vetted him.

But they screwed up big time and expertly magnified their mistakes — not as rare a combination as some might think.

The biggest lesson in crisis management from this twisted tale is that as bad as it was when it was just an affair, stopping then and admitting disgrace would have been far superior to the extended coverup and alleged crimes, which netted Edwards only deeper trouble.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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