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Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

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Illustration by Nathan Fox  

Somebody senior had to confront Edwards, they all agreed. The first to try was Hickman, who had known him the longest and was often tapped for difficult conversations with John. Hickman phoned and gingerly said that people were talking about him and Hunter. One of the things people most admire about you is your commitment to Elizabeth, he said. You don’t want to mess that up. “I know what you’re saying,” Edwards replied. “I’ll deal with that.”

Scher was next to raise the issue, traveling up to New York from Washington and meeting Edwards in his room at the Regency.

“So you think I’m fucking her?” Edwards asked.

Well, are you? Scher pressed.

Edwards said he wasn’t.

Well, if you’re not, everyone thinks you are, Scher replied. So unless she’s going to play some vital role in your future that I don’t understand, he continued, it seems to me that she shouldn’t be traveling with you anymore.

Edwards calmly agreed—so calmly, in fact, that Scher took it as a clear indication that he and Hunter were having an affair. If someone accused me of cheating on my wife, I’d say, “Go fuck yourself!” Scher thought.

A few days later, in October, Brumberger flew from New York to Chicago to join Edwards for a trip to China. “Hey, I need to talk to you,” Edwards said abruptly when they met in the terminal at O’Hare. They walked together to the airline’s premium lounge, where Edwards had reserved a private meeting room for their conversation. “Sit,” Edwards said—and then tore into Brumberger.

Stuff from the road is getting back to people, and it’s obviously you who’s doing it, Edwards said angrily. You didn’t recognize who you work for. You don’t work for Nick and Peter. You work for me. I trusted you like a son, but you broke my trust. I can’t have you around me anymore. You’re not coming to China, and you’re never working for me again.

Brumberger’s heart sank. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said. “I always thought my goal in all of this was to do everything I could to help you become the next president of the United States.”

“Why didn’t you come to me?” Edwards asked.

“I did come to you! I came to you in Ohio. I called you after Labor Day! I tried!”

“No,” Edwards said. “Why didn’t you come to me like a fucking man and tell me to stop fucking her?”

They were both yelling now at the top of their lungs, red-faced and teary-eyed. (“You’re a 27-year-old kid, and I’m a grown man!” Edwards railed. “Don’t you think I’ve thought about this?”) But when Edwards finally regained his composure, he seemed to recognize the implications of sacking Brumberger. Let’s talk about all this when I get back, he said.

But Brumberger had had enough. Crushed and mortified, he was finished with Edwards.

Brumberger’s firing sent shock waves through the campaign. Baldick, Rubey, and longtime communications adviser David Ginsberg followed him out the door that autumn of 2006. All three gave Edwards pretexts for quitting, but for them there was no escaping the conclusion that the candidate was diddling Hunter and that he was hell-bent on resisting the efforts of the people closest to him to save him from himself.

The departure of much of Edwards’s inner circle only weeks before he planned formally to declare his candidacy in December—a few weeks ahead of Clinton and Obama—didn’t seem to trouble him. Most of his team had clashed with Elizabeth, so he could chalk it up to that. The valley of staff was getting smaller; so much the better. Hunter was still accompanying him everywhere, while Elizabeth had been a distant figure from the campaign. Her new book, Saving Graces, was a huge success. She was even more famous now, more iconic, more beloved than her husband by a mile.

Elizabeth had never crossed Hunter’s path—until the afternoon of December 30, in Chapel Hill, at the last stop of John’s announcement tour, which Rielle was on hand to shoot.

Elizabeth and her family were waiting at the campaign headquarters in a small room with big windows overlooking an expansive lawn below. Hundreds of people were there for the rally, listening to a bluegrass band. Edwards and his aides arrived straight from the airport and breezed into the room. Hunter was toting her camera, sticking like glue to Edwards, acting the way she always did—too familiar, too intimate. Always jealous of anyone, male or female, who seemed close to John, Elizabeth watched Hunter working the room. The expression on Mrs. Edwards’s face said: Who is this woman? And what is she doing here? Icily, Elizabeth asked Hunter to back off. “Excuse me, we’re trying to have some privacy,” she said.


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