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John Edwards: Once More With (Or Without) Feeling, He Takes Full Responsibility

Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards addresses the media alongside his daughter Cate Edwards and his parents Wallace and Bobbie Edwards yesterday after the conclusion of his trial on campaign finance charges.
Sara D. Davis
Getty Images
Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards addresses the media alongside his daughter Cate Edwards and his parents Wallace and Bobbie Edwards yesterday after the conclusion of his trial on campaign finance charges.

Yesterday, after being acquitted of one of six campaign finance fraud charges against him and seeing the jury deadlock on the other five, John Edwards held a brief press conference in which he said this:

I want to make sure that everyone hears from me and from my voice that while I do not believe I did anything illegal or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong. And there is no one else responsible for my sins. None of the people who came to court and testified are responsible, nobody working for the government is responsible. I am responsible. And if I want to find the person who should be held accountable for my sins, honestly, I don't have to go any further than the mirror. It's me. It is me, and me alone.

It is, in effect, a much longer and wordier (some might say "more lawyerly") version of something we talked about in this space when Anthony Weiner said it almost exactly a year ago.

"I take full responsibility."

As is usually the case, however, it's very difficult to tell what that means. He agrees to accept undetermined consequences? He agrees not to deny things that did, in fact, occur?

Or does it just mean, "I believe my road to redemption should officially start now"?

That road is likely to be long, to put it mildly. He's acknowledged fathering a child with Rielle Hunter while married to Elizabeth, who later died. And lying when caught. Consider the fact that statements defending him against the campaign finance charges came from people like Melanie Sloan of the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who told NPR in April that he's not necessarily a criminal just because he's "a despicable and loathsome human being." Remember: that's the good publicity.

Given that long road, it's more than a bit odd to see him talking in the wake of his fraud trial — and within moments of all this responsibility-taking — about the fact that he gets breakfast ready for his kids. Is that ... extra-great? Who is supposed to give them breakfast? And what place does the mention of his late son have in this address? Why is he talking about how much he loves his "precious Quinn," the child he initially denied having fathered? Is there anyone who's in the mood for this?

And why does the windup and the closing sound so much like a stump speech — or at worst, a political concession speech?

I don't think God's through with me. I really believe he thinks there's still some good things I can do. And whatever happens with this legal stuff going forward, what I'm hopeful about is, all those kids that I've seen, you know in the poorest parts of this country, and in some of the poorest places in the world, that I can help them in whatever way I'm still capable of helping them. And I want to dedicate my life to being the best dad I can be and to helping those kids, who I think deserve help and who I hope I can help.

The problem that "full responsibility" addresses often have is that by the time you get to the place where John Edwards is now, people are tired of hearing you talk. They have the dreaded YTAF — You Talking Again Fatigue. And there's really only one cure, and that's the very welcome YBQ — You Being Quiet.

If Edwards really wants to be better thought of someday, which he surely seems to, celebrity history (and he is a celebrity at this point, whether that's what he wanted or not) demonstrates that the best path is to just ... embrace the You Being Quiet strategy. Attempt to be ignored for a while. Don't talk about what you're doing. Don't hold any press conferences of any kind.

And really, accept that taking full responsibility might mean owning the consequence that sometimes terrifies a famous person more than any other: being forgotten.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.