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The Edwards "Doomsday" Conspiracy

5 years ago
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For a defrocked politician, John Edwards remains the journalistic gift that keeps on giving. Just as the Oprah-ratic debates over Elizabeth Edwards' new book were beginning to grow stale, George Stephanopoulos jumped into the fray Sunday with his jaw-dropping claim that unnamed Edwards' campaign staffers had devised a "doomsday strategy...to sabotage his campaign" if the candidate with an explosive adulterous secret ever looked like he would win the nomination.

Okay, it isn't the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series or Soviet agents stealing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos. But the notion of some vast Edwards conspiracy has the makings of the best political novel since "Advise and Consent." As reality, however, it seems somewhere between implausible and absurd.

"I don't believe it for a minute," says Eileen Kotecki, who oversaw Edwards' fund-raising operations in both the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. "I wish we had been that crafty." Another top Edwards staffer, who was part of all the key campaign conference calls, fumes, "The whole thing is absolutely nonsense. It's an insult to all the people who worked their hearts out and believed in this guy."

Part of the problem with imagining such an "In case of impending victory, break glass" strategy is that it is difficult to figure out who the anti-Edwards conspirators might have been. Pollster Harrison Hickman and 2004 press secretary Jennifer Palmieri were so loyal to Edwards that they helped him prepare for his ham-handed confession on "Nightline" last summer. Top campaign strategists Joe Trippi and Jonathan Prince were still so committed to the cause that they were on the road for the last-gasp South Carolina primary at a time when Edwards' chances of winning the Democratic nomination were only a tad better than Rush Limbaugh's. Trippi, by the way, told CNN Monday, "I wasn't involved in a plan like that. It didn't exist. It's a fantasy."

There were, to be sure, some ranking Edwards staffers who by December 2007 were stricken with the gnawing fear that the initial unsubstantiated National Enquirer reports of an affair with Rielle Hunter were true. But their response was not to figure out how to torpedo the campaign, but rather to work out their own personal exit strategies. It was much easier to slip away after Iowa (as Elizabeth Edwards, for the most part, did) than to purportedly plot to destroy the candidate to save the Democratic Party.

It did not take many calls to the Edwards alumni association to pick up off-the-record speculation about who might have peddled the self-aggrandizing conspiracy story to Stephanopoulos. In fact, in back-to-back interviews, two Edwards campaign veterans fingered each other as the likely leaker. The whole thing is a diverting parlor game in memory of a disgraced presidential candidate who won exactly one contested primary during his two tries for the White House.

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