John Edwards committed the perfect crime. He began an affair with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter on the night she waited outside his New York hotel and told him he was “hot” and later produced a child with her. Yet he didn’t suffer for it at the polls. He lost his bid for the White House in 2008 simply because voters, who knew nothing of his dalliance, concluded that he wasn’t presidential timber. Nor was he denied access to his children, as men in his situation so often are. Instead, he won them in an existential custody fight that his wife lost by dying.

Then last week the Justice Department indicted the former senator on charges of conspiracy, perjury and campaign finance law violations. It was enough to make me want to hug U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who announced the charges. Karma-wise, Edwards had it coming. Officially he’s being tried for breaking federal laws. But in the eyes of many, he’s also finally being called to account for inflicting severe emotional distress on his wife, children and country.

Breuer, who came to national prominence as counsel to President Bill Clinton during the impeachment ordeal, may have a case. The indictment states that lawyer Fred Baron, a former chairman of Edwards’s fundraising committee, and heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon together provided $925,000 to Edwards to help him cover up his affair with Hunter.

Mellon had previously offered to pay for Edwards’s $400 haircuts to spare him from criticism that he was a pretty boy masquerading as the bridge between the Two Americas.

Phony in Chief

According to a book by a former Edwards aide, Andrew Young, the prospect of a rooftop wedding in New York with Dave Matthews on the bandstand -- and a shot at becoming first lady -- wasn’t enough for Hunter to ensure the affair’s secrecy. That required lavish accommodations, private jets and other blandishments. Thanks to the generosity of Baron and Mellon, Hunter was kept happy and Edwards got to run for president without being exposed as an even bigger phony than he seemed.

Breuer’s hurdle is to translate this tawdry tale into a violation of campaign finance laws. If the hush money, and the conspiracy behind it, were intended to keep Edwards’s wife, Elizabeth, in the dark, as the defense claims, that’s not a crime. Cheating husbands pay off mistresses all the time -- though they rarely receive such generous help from friends. However, if the purpose was to keep voters in the dark, as the 19-page indictment charges, that’s a different matter.

Political Becomes Personal

Breuer treats the personal and political as one: he says Edwards’s image as a devoted family man was the “centerpiece” of his candidacy. Edwards understood that public knowledge of his affair would destroy that image and with it his candidacy. Thus the money was used to advance Edwards’s campaign, and was consequently subject to federal limits -- $2,300 per donor at the time -- and reporting requirements. What’s more, by not informing his campaign finance staff of the money, Edwards caused them to make false statements on campaign finance documents.

Now try proving all that. One of the two donors, Baron, is dead. The other, Mellon, is 100 years old. According to Andrew Young, the only thing asked in return for her donations, which were laundered through a decorator who hid some checks in boxes of chocolates, was that Edwards attend her daughter’s funeral. (He didn’t.) As for the expected testimony of Edwards’s former aide, the defense will point out that Young participated in the cover-up so energetically that he even claimed Hunter’s child was his. Why should a jury trust him now?

Worse Than Prison

Though he faces as much as five years in prison, Edwards refused a plea bargain, perhaps suggesting confidence that he’ll beat the rap. Yet he may be punished even if his case is dismissed or a jury acquits him: He might end up marrying Hunter, who has repeatedly proved herself to be an extremely unappealing character. In 2010, she posed for GQ magazine wearing a man’s white shirt and no pants, her legs akimbo across a bed filled with stuffed toys, to lay claim, publicly, to a dying woman’s husband. Her daughter will one day discover this photo.

For those seeking evidence that suffering has changed John Edwards, consider his press conference outside the federal building where he was booked on charges that could find him swapping tailored pinstripes for an orange jumpsuit. Just to Edwards’s right was his older daughter, Cate -- a testament to the fact that no matter how big a lout, we get only one father in life. The scene suggested a woman standing by a man for the sake of her family. And we can guess why Edwards drew her into that sad tableau: He did it for himself. Thanks for trying Lanny Breuer. But there’s no earthly punishment to fit this crime.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net