Let The Punishment Fit The Crime: Should John Edwards Be Indicted?

Word on the street is that John Edwards may be indicted for campaign finance violations relating to his alleged use of campaign funds to buy off and hide the pregnant Rielle Hunter. Mickey Kaus, who was virtually alone among the media in writing about Edwards's mistress, thinks that would not be a just result:

Everything John Edwards did–every breath he took–for four years was designed to get him elected president, after all. His antipoverty work was designed to make him look good. The payoffs to Rielle Hunter were designed to make him look good (by preventing him from looking bad). If the latter is a campaign expense, and has to be paid for with funds subject to individual limits, why not the former? And don’t say it’s because the former is a good thing and the latter is a bad thing. Criminal law isn’t supposed to be a blanket warrant to punish things we think are bad.

If you’re going to enact a criminal law which requires such squirrelly distinctions–including an absurd attempt to figure out what part of a politician’s life isn’t related to getting him or her elected–the only way to save it, it seems to me, is to cut people a lot of slack when it comes to applying it. That’s especially true when it comes to laws regulating the core democratic practice of running for office. Otherwise you wind up with what lawyers like to call a “chilling effect”–chilling in that it will prevent candidates from doing lots of things that should be legal, chilling in that it will deter non-insiders from running. …

All I know about Edwards's efforts to bankroll his mistress come from former Edwards aide Andrew Young's book The Politician. Young spends quite a bit of time describing his and Edwards's meetings with rich liberals who donated enthusiastically to Mr. Two-Americas. Hootie & The Blowfish, for example, were big Edwards supporters.

But, their biggest donor was Bunnie Mellon, a ninety-something dowager billionaire who was enthralled with Edwards. (you can practically hear her say, "Such a nice young man!") Mellon gave Edwards literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, laundered through Young and others, no questions asked. It was this money that funded a year-long cross country tour of spas and luxury hotels by Hunter, Young, Young's wife and their children; a tour that ended with a Santa Barbara sojourn in a rented mansion with Young's kids going to a pricey private schools. All of this paid for with "Bunnie money." Mellon, in case you were wondering, earned her pile the old fashioned way: she married an heir to the Mellon banking fortune. Mellon, Edwards and Young apparently liked to joke about how the Republican Mr. Mellon's money was going to support progressive causes. Haw! Haw!

Now, at some point reading The Politician you start to wonder, hey, how is that people like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell have to justify really penny-ante "violations" like whether the right RNC office saved the right Neiman Marcus receipts, while John Edwards can use hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single source to hide his pregnant mistress from the media? Well, Mellon's money was a gift! Of course! Why hasn't anyone else thought of this before?

Anyway, if this isn't the clearest possible example of how campaign finance laws are little more than an incumbent protection racket, I don't know what else there is. Back in Ye Olden Days (pre-1974) people like Bunnie Mellon could bankroll someone's campaign without going through all of these dodges. Supposedly this was a corrupt system, but I don't see how you can read the Edwards/Mellon tale and not conclude that the current one is even worse. Pre-1974, a would be politician would need to impress some deep pockets with his intelligence, skills and confidence. Now, there's much more a premium in being a glib salesman.

As for Edwards, I'm still waiting for someone - isn't there some kind of Mellon Trust trustee out there? - to sue him for elder abuse, which would be much more fitting for what he did during his "fund raising" visits to Bunnie Mellon.

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