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The American Debate: As sex scandals go, John Edwards by a mile

Let's keep things in perspective. On the sleazeball scale, Anthony Weiner's virtual sex scandal barely moves the needle when measured against John Edwards' actual sex scandal.

Let's keep things in perspective. On the sleazeball scale, Anthony Weiner's virtual sex scandal barely moves the needle when measured against John Edwards' actual sex scandal.

As the federal indictment issued Friday makes abundantly clear, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee and 2008 presidential candidate has been uniquely mendacious - not merely because he betrayed his cancer-stricken wife by impregnating a paramour, or because he hid mother and child with the help of a million bucks donated in secrecy, but because he did so while seeking to sell himself to voters as an exemplar of good character.

The Justice Department is naturally focused on the legal issues - it alleges that Edwards breached campaign-finance laws when he used that money to cover his tracks and thus protect his 2008 candidacy. But what's arguably most interesting, in the indictment, is the moral dimension. The real Edwards was precisely the opposite of what he purported to be, and that should serve as a cautionary lesson to those Americans who are easily seduced by smoke and mirrors. It's fun to fall in love with a candidate, but skepticism is wiser.

Edwards the candidate always sought to blur the line between the private and public man. His sales pitch was that the personal was political, that his partnership with wife Elizabeth ("the love of my life") was proof of his worth. As the indictment points out: "A centerpiece of Edwards' candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man." The feds cite an Edwards campaign document, in which the strategists wrote: "We need people to know that his family comes first."

The 2008 Edwards mantra was "faith, family, responsibility," which echoed what he had preached during his first presidential bid in 2004. During a debate on the eve of that primary campaign, he had said: "Character, conviction, good judgment. I'm happy to have people judge me on that basis."

And I can still see Edwards onstage in Philadelphia, playing the morality card during a Democratic debate in October 2007. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton talked about the issues. Edwards did that, too, but most emphatically he extolled his goodness. He said: "I think it is crucial for Democratic voters and caucus-goers to determine who they can trust, who's honest, who is sincere, who has integrity. . . . Our responsibility as presidential candidates is to be in 'tell the truth' mode all the time." And in January 2008, he again stressed: "I will continue to speak the truth whatever the consequences are."

Yet even as he peddled his pieties, he was busy concealing his scandal. According to the indictment's timeline, the cover-up began in June 2007. That was when millionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon began to send money, via intermediaries, that was ultimately used to keep Rielle Hunter and her baby living in the lap of luxury - chartered flights, swank hotel rooms, Santa Barbara domiciles.

The Bunny money kept Hunter quiet, and Edwards shrugged off the initial stories that broke in the National Enquirer. But when the tabloid reported the existence of a love child - this was in late 2007, when Edwards was publicly lauding his "honesty" and "integrity" - the candidate importuned his devoted aide, Andrew Young, to claim paternity. According to the indictment, Edwards told Young that this lie was necessary because "his efforts to win the presidency ... depended on it."

The crux of the federal case is that Edwards knowingly orchestrated a scandal cover-up to protect his presidential ambitions; therefore, the indictment contends, the Bunny money totaling $725,000 should have been reported as campaign donations (she had already officially donated $2,300, the maximum allowable amount for a primary campaign).

The crux of Edwards' legal defense is that her money was not used to protect his campaign; rather, it was a private gift intended for a private reason, to help hide his affair from Elizabeth.

Edwards may ultimately avoid jail, with the help of his legal hairsplitting. But, again, what matters here is the moral dimension. His best argument is that his aides took money from donors (Mellon, and trial lawyer Fred Baron) and used it to ensure (for a while, anyway) that a spouse stricken with cancer would not learn that she had been betrayed. And all the while, Edwards' campaign team was strategizing about how he could get out there and show Americans that he "shared their everyday values."

In the end, Edwards was right about one thing. There are indeed "two Americas" - one set of rules for the average Joe, another for the rare Joe who can tap rich benefactors and spirit away his secret lover on a charter jet, during the 2007 Christmas season, at a cost of $29,259.85.

Hence, a lesson for the future: If any candidate pitching moral purity strikes you as way too good to be true, trust your instincts.