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Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

There’s a story about to come out in the Enquirer, Edwards said, that’s going to allege that I had an affair with a woman who used to travel with my campaign. The story is untrue and outrageous, he claimed. It’s going to be extremely hurtful to my family. Could you please do something to stop it?

Altman barely knew Edwards, but could tell he was upset. “I haven’t heard a word about this,” Altman said. “I’ll look into it, but there’s really nothing I can do.”

Altman called David Pecker, the Enquirer’s publisher. We have evidence, Pecker told Altman. “This thing could have a big impact on this guy, so let’s be triply sure,” Altman said. Pecker replied that he already was.

A little later, Altman’s phone buzzed again. This time it was Elizabeth, in tears.

You must do something about this, she begged. It’s cruel, it’s unfair, and it’s untrue. This is way too much for me. I can’t take it. It’s killing our family. It’s killing me.

Altman was torn up by Elizabeth’s distress. But his hands were tied. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Edwards,” he said. “I’m really, really sorry.”

The Enquirer story didn’t come completely out of left field. Back in the spring, there had been whispers that Hunter had reappeared, with sightings of her at hotels where Edwards was staying. Then, over the summer, a reporter from the Huffington Post began digging into the sudden disappearance of the webisodes from the One America site. The HuffPo story, published in September, was mild—full of insinuations but no direct allegations.

“You aren’t going to believe this,” an Edwards aide told Tom Daschle, “but he’s willing to cut a deal right now. He’ll agree to be Barack’s V.P.”

There was little that was elliptical about the Enquirer story that hit the streets on October 10, however. “Presidential candidate John Edwards is caught in a shocking mistress scandal that could wreck his campaign,” was the lead, and the article went on to cite a “bombshell email message” in which the other woman “confesses to a friend she’s ‘in love with John,’ but it’s ‘difficult because he is married and has kids.’ ”

The next morning, John and Elizabeth were scheduled to fly out of Raleigh to separate destinations—he to South Carolina, she to Iowa. But when the traveling staff arrived at their home, they found Elizabeth out of sorts, disconsolate, still in her bathrobe. She had drafted a blog post she wanted published, defending her husband from the accusations against him. This kind of tawdriness was something the Clintons would be involved in, she wrote, but not the Edwardses.

The staff persuaded Elizabeth that posting the item would do more harm than good. But she was livid about what she saw as the campaign’s feeble response to the story. After pulling herself together, she and John set off for the private aviation terminal at the airport—but partway there, their car pulled over, and John hopped out and jumped into the staff car, saying in an exasperated tone, “I can’t ride with her.”

At the terminal, the couple fought in the passenger waiting area. They fought outside in the parking lot. Elizabeth was sobbing, out of control, incoherent. As their aides tried to avert their eyes, she tore off her blouse, exposing herself. “Look at me!” she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground.

John tried to bring down the temperature, remaining calm and impassive, but his apparent standoffishness only seemed to infuriate and disorient Elizabeth more. Finally, after talking to her doctor on the phone, Edwards sent his wife home and flew off to South Carolina.

Out of view, the Edwards campaign was in damage-control mode, going into overdrive to dissuade the mainstream media from picking up the story, denouncing it as tabloid trash. Their efforts at containing the fallout were remarkably successful. The Enquirer’s exposé gained zero traction in the traditional press and almost none in the blogosphere.

Edwards’s relief was palpable, as was his gratitude to the small coterie of aides who had corralled the story. “It’s John,” he began in a voice-mail to one of them. “I just wanted to call and thank you for everything you’ve done in the past few days. It hasn’t been easy, I know that, and I want you to know how grateful I am for everything you’ve done.”

The next voice-mail in the staffer’s queue was from Elizabeth, who vented her fury that the story had appeared in any form, suspicious that the very aides who had kept the matter from mushrooming had somehow enabled the affair. “You’re to have nothing more to do with this!” Elizabeth hissed. “You stay away from our family! You are poison! You’re dead to us!”

For John Edwards, the narrow escape should have been hair-raising, his wife’s humiliation chastening. But Edwards seemed as resolved and optimistic as ever about his prospects. To his way of thinking, he was still as plausible a nominee as he had been when he’d announced his candidacy—and the outside world agreed. As Iowa drew near, the caucuses were still a down-to-the-wire three-way contest, with an Edwards victory seemingly no less likely than one by either of his rivals. In mid-December, he graced the cover of Newsweek, flanked by the headline “The Sleeper.” Everything seemed to be back to normal—until the Enquirer struck again.