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.
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 and communications aides Jennifer Palmieri, Kim Rubey and David Ginsberg all made their excuses, but some have since told friends that 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 they point to other reasons for departures, noting that former staffers such as 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 advisers, such as 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 being inappropriate with regard to sex, nobody would work in politics," the aide said, speaking - like almost all of 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 such as 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.
Trial lawyer Fred Baron, Edwards' friend, provided a private jet that saved Edwards' campaign many thousands of dollars, and he was a regular presence at headquarters, buying staffers drinks and dinner. Though Baron would die of cancer before the end of the campaign, senior aides never knew he was sick.
Elizabeth 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 for 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 members of the candidate's 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 evidence of an 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 isider said, but the effect was to keep Edwards' shot at the White House alive.
The 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 Elizabeth 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 the confessional book and a federal investigation haven't yet solved the remaining mystery of John Edwards' affair. His mistress, Hunter, bore a daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, on Feb. 27, 2008, in Santa Barbara, Calif. 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 Andrew Young, a longtime close aide. Admitting paternity would have been conceding that his affair had resumed in spring 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, Elizabeth Edwards suggested the affair may have resumed.
"I have no idea," she said. "It doesn't look like my children."
By Ben Smith