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Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

Illustration by Nathan Fox  

When the whole wretched business eventually became public, Elizabeth would claim that her husband revealed to her the next morning that he had slept with Hunter—but that it had happened only once and afterward he was consumed with remorse. Her first reaction, she would say, was that John should leave the race, but he convinced her that dropping out immediately after the announcement would raise suspicions that would be hard to put to rest.

Whatever was actually said between them, by the next afternoon, Elizabeth was on the phone with members of Team Edwards, issuing marching orders: Hunter’s contract was to end, the webisodes pulled from the Internet, the raw video retrieved as soon as possible.

That woman is crazy—get rid of her, Elizabeth said.

And John professed agreement.

“We have to get the tapes back,” he told one of his aides. “She’s dangerous.”

And with that, Rielle Hunter disappeared. But not really. And not for long.

They all sat in silence around the square table in the Edwardses’ living room in the new estate on Old Greensboro Road. It was the afternoon of March 21, 2007, and John and Elizabeth had called their closest aides together to talk about her health. It had been a roller coaster of a day, with Elizabeth at the hospital for hours of tests and difficult conversations with her doctors. John explained that Elizabeth’s cancer had returned and moved from breast to bone. Calmly, clinically, he explained the diagnosis and prognosis: It was treatable but incurable.

Among the aides gathered in the room and listening in by phone, more than a few wished Edwards would use the development as an excuse to quit the race. For the past three months, as the campaign got under way, Elizabeth and John had been fighting savagely on the road, sometimes causing events to be delayed. She was telling friends that John had changed, that he no longer cared about anybody but himself. To a longtime aide, she put the question, “Don’t you think he’s kind of messianic?”

But Elizabeth didn’t ask her husband to get out. She insisted that he stay in. We can’t let my cancer affect the future of the country, she told the group that day. He has to run. He has to be president. I believe it’s the most important thing we can do.

Edwards’s position in the race was strong at the start. He’d come flying out of the gate, offering a flurry of bold and concrete policy plans, notably on health care and global warming. Although Clinton was far ahead in the national polls, her standing in Iowa was as shaky as Edwards’s was solid. And Obama’s anemic performance in the first half of the year did nothing to alter John’s and Elizabeth’s initial assessment of the hopemonger as a passing phenomenon.

In the wake of the Hunter flare-up and the recurrence of Elizabeth’s cancer, the dynamic between husband and wife shifted in the context of the campaign. He was even more deferential to her; she was even more assertive, pushing John hard on policy, always to the left. In 2004, Edwards’s campaign had been sunny, centrist, and thematic. Elizabeth prodded him toward being hotter, more populist, more sharply ideological and anti-Establishment.

But Edwards’s new image was sullied by a trio of interrelated imbroglios that bubbled up in 2007, which his advisers dubbed “the three H’s”: the house, the hedge fund, and the haircuts. The house referred to the new mansion, a two-building complex totaling 28,200 square feet, with an indoor basketball court, swimming pool, and squash court, two theatrical stages, and a room designated “John’s Lounge.” The hedge fund referred to Edwards’s deal to be a “senior adviser” to Fortress Investment Group, in New York, from which he reaped a minor fortune. And the haircuts referred to the story that he’d received two $400 cuts from a posh Beverly Hills stylist who later revealed that he’d once charged Edwards $1,250 for a session.

Edwards’s advisers were certain—and they were correct—that the Obama and Clinton campaigns were driving three H’s, planting the stories in the press at the national level and in the early states. But whatever the sources of the controversies, all three reinforced doubts about Edwards’s substantiveness and authenticity.

Problematic as the three H’s were, however, they paled beside another threat that returned as summer turned to fall. Suddenly, it appeared that a fourth H might be added to the list—an H that could have stood for “honey” or for “hussy,” but either way stood for “Hunter.”

Roger Altman picked up the phone in his 38th-floor office on the East Side of New York and found Edwards on the line. Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and a supporter of Hillary’s, was chairman of the investment group Evercore Partners. Since 1999, Evercore had owned a stake in American Media, the publisher of the National Enquirer—and it was that connection which prompted the call that day in the first week of October.