Politics 2008: John Edwards, Untucked

This year, former vice presidential candidate John Edwards crisscrossed the country, speaking out against poverty and the Iraq war. Edwards said he was getting back to the working-class causes he cared about. He was also playing smart politics--in a Democratic primary dominated by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a solid grounding in the populist left could be the only way for Edwards to stay in the game.

But maybe something is really changing inside the son of a millworker. This week he will launch a series of short documentaries on his Web site, OneAmericaCommittee.com, offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of life on the campaign trail. The Webisodes, previewed exclusively by NEWSWEEK, show Edwards struggling with how to show more authenticity on the campaign trail. "I'd rather be successful or unsuccessful based on who I really am, not based on some plastic Ken doll," he says in one episode. "But ... we're so conditioned to say what's safe ... and it's hard to shed all that."

The documentaries--which show the former senator on trips to Iowa and Africa, and places in between--are a start. In one installment, Edwards mocks a memo prepared by staffers reminding him to praise the value of public education when speaking to a group of public-school teachers. "I pay a lot of money for people who have the expertise to tell me that."

The Webisodes are the brainchild of Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker who met Edwards at a New York bar where Edwards was having a business meeting. "I didn't think it was John Edwards," Hunter recalls, "because the public persona did not mesh at all with the person who was sitting in front of me." Hunter pitched Edwards on the documentaries as a medium for bringing the "real John Edwards" to the people.

Edwards still has a ways to go. In the midst of a short theme sequence that begins each Webisode, the camera lingers over the former senator's behind as he tucks a starched white shirt into his pants. Still, Hunter, now under contract with Edwards's organization, says she sees the untucked John Edwards coming more and more to the fore. "When he gets really tired, he'll jump back into that automatic pilot thing," she says. "But he's aware of it, he doesn't want it to happen."