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John Edwards, Back In The Spotlight

Former Democratic presidential hopeful, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., is seen during a taping of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., Thursday, April 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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This story was written by Ben Smith.

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, Scher 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 his wife 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 dragged hundreds of staffers and thousands of supporters down in its bitter undertow.

Now the former candidate is being hauled 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," which opened with appearances in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon. She's scheduled to be on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on Thursday, and an upcoming Time magazine excerpt focuses on her reaction to her husband's infidelity.

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

As Elizabeth Edwards wrote in her book: "He should not have run."

John Edwards' campaign appears, in hindsight, to have been doomed from the start, as Scher told him that fall. Its implosion now raises a question that echoes in the stories of many talented, self-destructive politicians: When - and how - should their family and staff try to stop them?

"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 facade," 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 only interview on the subject, with ABC News, 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 action that may have permanently ended his public career and that triggered the investigation, however, wasn't the affair; it was the yearlong coverup 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, N.C., 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 reslved efficiently and in a timely [manner]."

The spokeswoman, 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 that they'd had their suspicions.