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Disgraced Edwards Back In The Spotlight

In the fall of 2006, John Edwards’ political high command began hearing disturbing reports from aides on the road. The candidate, they were told, was spending too much time with an eccentric filmmaker named Rielle Hunter.

So when Edwards and Hunter returned from his trip to Africa in early October, his former campaign manager Peter Scher confronted him: If Edwards was having an affair, he told the candidate flatly, he couldn’t run for president.

Edwards denied the affair, but Scher and other loyalists from his 2004 campaign doubted his word, made excuses, and stayed out of the 2008 presidential race when Edwards launched his campaign after Christmas.

A few days later, Edwards made a partial confession to his wife Elizabeth, of a single, regrettable encounter with Hunter. Like Scher, she asked him to drop his bid, to “protect our family from this woman, from his act,” she writes in her book.

But Edwards went ahead with the campaign — and Elizabeth Edwards put her reluctance aside to drive his campaign forward.

John Edwards’ decision to keep running turned an ordinary, private drama into a public spectacle that consumed a presidential campaign, destroyed Edwards’ political career, and left an long trail of embittered former staffer and longtime supporters.

Now the former candidate is being dragged back into the spotlight this week by federal prosecutors, who are investigating whether any laws were broken in an attempt to buy Hunter’s silence. But Elizabeth Edwards, too, has chosen to pull her now-reclusive husband back into the public eye with a tour for her new book, “Resilience,” that opens with appearances in Manhattan Tuesday afternoon. She’ll be on the Oprah Winfrey Show Thursday, and an upcoming Time Magazine excerpt focuses on her reaction to her husband’s infidelity.

And the investigation into questions of payments to Edwards’ mistress and the book carry the same message.

As Mrs. Edwards wrote in the book: "He should not have run.”

Edwards’ campaign appears in hindsight to have been doomed from the start, as Scher told him that fall. Its implosion now raises questions that echo in the stories of many talented, self-destructive politicians: When, and how, should their family and staff try to stop them? Were spouse and staff both enablers?

“Assuming the timeline that has been made public is accurate I think both Elizabeth and John are to blame – both of them carried on this façade,” said David Redlawsk, a professor at the University of Iowa who was a prominent Edwards supporter in the key state. “For the good of the country, he certainly shouldn’t have run. For the good of the country, she should have said something.”

The former candidate, in his sole interview on the subject, took sole responsibility for his mistakes, blaming “a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences."

The actions that may have permanently ended his public career, and which triggered the investigation, however, aren’t the affair, but the year-long cover-up in which a wealthy friend flew Hunter and a former aide who claims to be the father of her child around the country to avoid the attention of the media.


Edwards also has asserted his innocence in that investigation, whose existence he confirmed in a statement through a Raleigh spokeswoman, but whose exact shape isn’t known.

“I am confident that no funds from my campaign were used improperly,” Edwards said in a statement. “However, I know that it is the role of government to ensure that this is true. We have made available to the United States both the people and the information necessary to help them get the issue resolved efficiently and in a timely matter.”

Thespokeswoman, Joyce Fitzpatrick, said Edwards has nothing further to add to his statement.

The train-wreck may not be over, but it could have been averted. None of his aides knew for sure, but after his campaign imploded, several told friends they’d always had their suspicions.

And in retrospect, observers might have wondered why virtually the entire senior staff of his 2004 campaign departed before the beginning of his 2006 race.

Campaign managers Scher and Nick Baldick, communications aides Jennifer Palmieri, Kim Rubey and David Ginsberg all made their excuses, but some have since told friends they left because they were nervous about Hunter.

Some of them now blame those who stayed for “enabling” Edwards’ run, as one put it. Others say aides had little choice but to dismiss the rumors, and point to other reasons for departures, noting that former staffers like Baldick had clashed with Elizabeth Edwards, whose central role in her husband’s public life was a consistent source of internal tension.

And so some top advisors, like pollster Harrison Hickman, chose to stay.

“I asked him – he told me they weren’t true,” one former senior aide said of the rumors. “What are you supposed to do? Say, ‘I think you’re a liar, I refuse to do my job?’

“If you had to quit every time there was a rumor that a politician was be inappropriate with regard to sex, nobody would work in politics,” the aide said, speaking – like almost all Edwards’ former staffers – on the condition of anonymity, because few have any interest in being dragged back into a damaging scandal.

The departure of Edwards’ inner circle also didn’t scare off prominent supporters, like former Michigan Congressman David Bonior and labor leaders Bruce Raynor and Leo Gerard. Soon, they were joined by a new cadre of devoted young staffers and political pros like consultant Joe Trippi who later told associates they had no idea of the gathering storm. Prominent Democrats also threw themselves into the campaign.

Edwards friend the trial lawyer Fred Baron provided a private jet that saved Edwards’ campaign many thousands of dollars, and he was regular presence at headquarters, buying staffers drinks and dinner. Though he would die of cancer before the end of the campaign, senior aides never knew he was sick.

Mrs. Edwards’ cancer, though, was a very public struggle. In March, she announced it had recurred, but did not take the opportunity to end her husband’s campaign, standing beside him to urge him ahead.

“John was much more reluctant to continue the campaign than she was,” said a former aide who was present as they made their decision.

In late August or early September, the campaign’s press office took a call from a reporter from the National Enquirer. Instead of scuttling the campaign, it launched another intense – and largely successful – round of denials.

The concerted effort to keep the Enquirer story from reaching the average Iowa Caucus-goer was, a former top aide said, “a campaign within a campaign.” Even Edwards’ new top strategist, Trippi, was left off the first of the conference calls on the subject, which included some of the candidates’ 2004 circle who had taken a pass on the race, as well as aides who had stayed in 2006.

The aides ran a full-court press on reporters who asked about the Enquirer piece, asking them if they really planned to follow a supermarket tabloid and saying—accurately—that the evidence of the affair was thin.

For those who suspected the story was true, the real point of the effort was to prevent Elizabeth Edwards and their children from having to read about the candidate’s infidelities in the newspapers, one campaign insider said, but the effect was to keep Edwards’ shot at the White House alive.

Th most forceful denial, though, was his wife’s sheer presence.

“Obviously Mrs. Edwards was on the trail a lot, and people saw her and talked to her,” said Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa operative who sided with Edwards in the caucuses. “That kept things from ramping up in terms of suspicion or questioning.”

When the truth of the Enquirer reports became obvious, Bonior, former supporters said, spoke for many when he said Edwards had “betrayed” his backers.

Now former supporters’ view Mrs. Edwards book tour with ambivalence, sympathizing with what she describes in the subtitle as facing the “burdens and gifts of life’s adversities,” but wishing the campaign had never been run.

One friend described herself as “haunted” by the couple’s decisions.

And even Mrs. Edwards’ confessional book, and a federal investigation, however, haven’t yet resolved on remaining mystery of John Edwards’ affair. His mistress, Hunter, bore a daughter, Rielle Jaya James Druck, on February 27, 2008 in Santa Barbara, Cal. The line on the birth certificate for the father’s name was reportedly left blank.

The former presidential candidate, in his first interview on the subject, denied the child was his, and claimed the father was a longtime, close aide, Andrew Young. Admitting paternity would have been conceding that his affair resumed in the Spring of 2007, after his partial confession to his wife.

John Edwards has not given a clear response to that question of timing, and his wife doesn’t address it in her new book.

Asked by Winfrey whether her husband was the child’s father, though, she suggested the affair may have resumed.

“ I have no idea,” she said. “It doesn’t look like my children.”