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Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

A candidate whose aides were prepared to block him from becoming president. A wife whose virtuous image was a mirage. A mistress with a video camera. In an excerpt from the new book Game Change—their sweeping account of the 2008 campaign—the authors reveal that, inside the Edwards triangle, nothing was too crazy to be true.

Illustration by Nathan Fox  

One early evening in February 2006, John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator then gearing up to launch his second presidential campaign, was hanging out in the bar of the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue with one of his donors and his young traveling aide, Josh Brumberger. A woman sitting at a nearby table with some friends walked over and introduced herself.

“My friends insist you’re John Edwards,” Rielle Hunter said. “I tell them no way—you’re way too handsome.”

“No, ma’am. I’m John Edwards,” the candidate replied.

“No way! I don’t believe you!”

Brumberger saw this kind of thing all the time. Women were always hitting on his boss. He and Edwards had a well-oiled system in place for dealing with these situations tactfully and politely.

“He is John Edwards,” Brumberger interjected, “and I’m sorry, but we’re in the middle of something. Thank you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hunter said, and retreated to her table.

Brumberger thought that she was trouble from the get-go. She looked like a hybrid of Stevie Nicks and Lucinda Williams, in an outfit more suitable for a Grateful Dead concert than an evening at the Regency. A few minutes later, after Edwards departed for a dinner around the corner, Hunter came back over to Brumberger and started quizzing him about his job. “I think I can help you guys,” she said, and handed him her business card. The inscription read, BEING IS FREE: RIELLE HUNTER—TRUTH SEEKER.

After Hunter left, Brumberger sat there chuckling, having another glass of wine with one of his colleagues from Team Edwards. A little while later, he looked up through the window and clocked Hunter and one of her friends cornering his boss on his way back from dinner. “Holy shit, that crazy lady just cut him off!” Brumberger yelped and sprinted outside, where he broke up the scene, leading Edwards back into the hotel.

“Thank you,” Edwards said, apparently relieved. “I’m lucky you saw that, because those women, I don’t think they would have quit.”

Looking back on it later, Brumberger would always wonder about that evening: Was Hunter’s presence really an accident? Had she and Edwards met before? Did she slink back into the hotel and spend the night with him? The questions would plague him, and with good reason—for that night at the Regency was the moment when Edwards’s cataclysmic implosion began.

For all the tabloid headlines that have dogged Edwards in the years since then, most of the details of the circumstances that led to his fall have remained shrouded in mystery. After his turn as John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, Edwards was among a small handful of politicians with a credible shot at occupying the Oval Office. He was popular and charming, with serious rhetorical skills, a wife beloved by the public, and the same basic profile—a white, southern, moderate male—as the previous three Democrats who’d proved capable of winning the White House. Today, according to a recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll, Edwards stands as the “most disappointing” public figure of 2009, having collected twice as many votes for that dubious distinction as Tiger Woods. And hard as it is to imagine, the coming months may debase his image further still.

Philandering is hardly a novel vice among presidential wannabes—or presidents, for that matter. Nor was the Edwards campaign the only national operation in 2008 for which the actual or rumored extracurricular activities of the candidate (or the candidate’s spouse) posed a significant political problem. John McCain’s campaign expended vast amounts of time and energy dealing with accusations that the senator had had an affair with a lobbyist and preparing to confront stories that his wife was carrying on a liaison of her own. Hillary Clinton’s team established a “war room within a war room” to douse potential flare-ups in the press surrounding her husband’s personal life. Indeed, among the top-tier contenders, only the eventual Mr. and Mrs. 44 were untroubled by such matters.

Yet it was Edwards who stepped so far across the line that his career and life were reduced to rubble. For all the high drama of the Obama-Clinton battle and the historic import of the former’s general-election victory over McCain, Edwards’s story is equally, lastingly resonant: an archetypal political tragedy in which the very same qualities that fuel any presidential bid—ego, hubris, vanity, neediness, a kind of delusion—became all-consuming and self-destructive. And in which the gap between public façade and private reality simply grew too vast to bridge.

Unlike Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom wrestled for months with the question of whether to run in 2008, Edwards indulged in no to-ing or fro-ing. Before the dust had even settled on 2004, he was planning for four years hence. On the day he and Kerry conceded defeat, Edwards discovered that Elizabeth had breast cancer; a few days after that, he was on the phone with his pollster and close friend Harrison Hickman, gaming out the campaign ahead.