CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — There was a time when people in this historic US college town dared to dream that one of their own could become president. Then John Edwards got caught up in a whirlwind of sex, lies and betrayal — and now they’d rather forget all about him.
Edwards, 58, is currently on trial facing six charges related to accepting nearly $1 million to hide his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter and the child he fathered with her as his wife Elizabeth suffered from cancer.
The handsome two-time presidential hopeful and self-described “son of a mill worker” who often spoke about “two Americas” faces up to 30 years prison if found guilty on all counts.
“He was the local boy. We were very proud of him,” said Jane Brown, a 35-year Chapel Hill resident. “We all thought he was fabulous and inspiring, and we loved his smart and independent wife.”
Edwards came to town in the 1970s to study at the prestigious University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill Law School. There he met Mary Elizabeth Anania, another bright law student, and the two married in 1977.
Years later, at the height of Edwards’s career, the couple moved to Chapel Hill and built a mansion here. Edwards still lives in that home along with his 11 year-old son Jack and 14 year-old daughter Emma. An older daughter, Cate, is an attorney who married last year and lives in Washington.
The university, which opened in 1795, is an integral part of this town of tree-lined roads and brick buildings nicknamed “the Southern Part of Heaven.” Today Chapel Hill has a population of 51,000 and a median age of 30.4.
Brown, a UNC journalism professor, once collected $150,000 in a fundraiser at her home for the 2004 John Kerry-John Edwards campaign and admits fantasizing about a possible Edwards presidency. “We thought he was going to go all the way,” she said.
In 2007, as Edwards was preparing his second presidential bid, Elizabeth announced that an earlier diagnosed cancer had returned, but that she would continue working on her husband’s campaign.
Then there was talk that Edwards was cheating on his wife. Edwards denied the affair, then confessed, and later under pressure admitted that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.
Elizabeth’s cancer spread, and she died in late 2010. She is buried in Raleigh next to the couple’s first son Wade, who died in a freak auto accident in 1996.
As for Edwards, “nobody is talking about him in my circles,” said Brown. “He’s a lost cause. It’s a tragedy.”
The whole state is trying to forget about Edwards, said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.
“There is not a whole lot of emotional investment in his fate,” Dinan said. “Edwards is someone from the past. He doesn’t have a public career ahead of him.”
Before the trial opened, a state survey by Public Policy Polling showed Edwards with an 11 percent approval rating. A national CBS/New York Times poll out Monday gave him only three percent approval, down from 30 percent in 2007.
Nobody was willing to talk at the UNC Law School. “We’re not comfortable commenting on it,” said Allison Reid, the assistant dean for communications.
“People don’t like to mention him because he was pretty much everyone’s idol,” said Brandon Jones, a recent UNC graduate. His downfall “shows that everyone has their vices and shortcomings,” Jones said.
But not everyone was blinded by Edwards’s legendary charisma.
“I never sensed any home-town patriotism for him,” said one skeptic, UNC literature professor John McGowan, who joked that he is “the only person in Chapel Hill who has not met Edwards.”
Edwards, who was senator for North Carolina from 1999 to 2005, was famous for entering restaurants and greeting all the customers.
He still goes out, sometimes with Hunter, but now sits quietly in a corner, according to locals.
“He’s our only alumni who did become president,” said McGowan, gesturing towards a campus plaza named after James K. Polk, a 1818 UNC graduate and US president 1845-1849.
Polk’s hand-drawn portrait is one several headshots of local celebrities, including basketball star Michael Jordan, that line the walls at Spanky’s Restaurant and Bar, a popular town hang-out just off campus.
John Edwards’s portrait used to be displayed prominently, but when the scandal broke and his wife died “we thought it best to take him down and put her up instead,” said bartender Travis White.
“They’re thinking of putting his picture in the bathroom,” sneered a bar patron who overhead White.
Despite her anger Brown, the former supporter, doesn’t believe that Edwards deserves prison time.
“He’s already ruined his life,” she said. “It seems so after-the-fact now.”