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Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

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So Edwards sat there, perched on the fence, squandering his leverage. Making the situation all the more absurd was the birth in late February of Hunter’s baby, a girl she named Frances Quinn—a development that Edwards somehow convinced himself would not preclude his being nominated and confirmed to run the Department of Justice.

Finally, in May, after suffering a blowout loss to Clinton in the West Virginia primary, Obama phoned Edwards and briefly managed to pierce his bubble of delusion. Tomorrow is the last day when your endorsement is going to make a difference, he told Edwards. And what would Edwards get in return? Not much more than a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic convention.

At 1:15 a.m., Obama sent an e-mail to his staff: Edwards is a go.

Three months later, as Obama unveiled Joe Biden as his V.P. pick, the occupant of that slot four years earlier sat in North Carolina wondering how it had all gone so wrong.

The past month had been sheer hell for Edwards; his life was falling apart. On July 22, the Enquirer ran a story about him paying a secret visit to Hunter and her baby. Two weeks later, it published a grainy “spy photo” of Edwards holding the little girl.

Edwards, panicked, assembled a handful of his former staffers—Ginsberg, Prince, and Jennifer Palmieri, his press secretary from 2004—to strategize, and settled on the idea of performing a mea culpa on Nightline.

Don’t do this interview unless you plan to tell the whole truth, Palmieri urged him, because if you lie, you’re going to make things infinitely worse. Edwards replied that he was going to confess to the affair, but deny paternity of the child. He didn’t want to jeopardize his chances of being Obama’s attorney general, he said.

“That, John?” Palmieri said in disbelief. “That was gone a long time ago.” Palmieri had been on the phone with the Obama campaign, which was sending the clear, if gentle, signal that there was no longer a slot available for Edwards to speak at the convention. “You have to call Obama right now” and back out, Palmieri said.

“I don’t want to give up on that yet,” Edwards insisted.

As Palmieri predicted, the Nightline interview did nothing to rehabilitate Edwards—and the months thereafter only brought him more misery. Isolated, scorned, turned into a national punch line, Edwards slipped into a dark place. His weight plummeted. His countenance turned sickly. Some of his former aides began to fear that he might kill himself. And though the extent of his ruin didn’t reach that depth, the nightmarishness of his circumstances remain hard to overstate. A North Carolina grand jury is expected soon to reach a conclusion in its investigation of whether Edwards or his associates illegally used campaign cash to cover up his affair. Hunter is suing him for child support. And next month Andrew Young will publish a tell-all book that promises to give new definition to the term sordid.

As for Elizabeth Edwards, she is reportedly now urging John to accede to Hunter’s demands and take responsibility for his paternity of Frances Quinn—a dramatic and no doubt painful turnabout from her position eighteen months ago. Confronted then with the Enquirer photo of her husband cuddling Hunter’s baby, she insisted to Palmieri that she still believed he was not the father. “I have to believe it,” Elizabeth said. “Because if I don’t, it means I’m married to a monster.”


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