Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

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.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

Edwards never expected to be the third wheel in 2008. The race was going to be Hillary versus him. That was how he saw it from the start. She would be the front-runner, of course. But as sure as night follows day, there would be an alternative, an anti-Hillary, and he would be it.

The Democratic Establishment agreed that there would be—and certainly should be—a viable challenger to Clinton. The party’s pooh-bahs on Capitol Hill were privately terrified about the prospect of Hillary rolling to the nomination. They feared that she was too polarizing to win, that she would drag down House and Senate candidates in red and purple states; and they worried, too, about Bill’s putative affairs. But while the Clintons themselves regarded Edwards as Hillary’s most formidable rival, there existed a deep wariness about the North Carolinian among his fellow Democrats. In the Senate, in particular, Edwards was regarded almost universally by his former colleagues as a callow, shallow phony. Quietly, the Establishment began a quest to find a different alternative, eventually settling on the unlikely horse that was Obama—with Harry Reid personally, and secretly, urging the Illinois senator to run against Clinton.

In 2005, however, those machinations were still a long way off, and the prospect of an Obama candidacy even more distant. To Edwards, the pathway to the nomination seemed clear: beat Clinton in Iowa, where his surprising second-place finish in 2004 had catapulted him to national prominence; survive New Hampshire; then kill her off in the South Carolina primary, which he’d carried the last time around. Over and over, he proclaimed to his aides, “I am going to be the next president of the United States.”

Some of Edwards’s advisers dismissed his outsize confidence as pro forma, but others took it as a sign of something deeper—a burgeoning megalomania. He was not the same guy who’d come out of nowhere and defeated the incumbent Republican senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998. Back then, everyone who met Edwards was struck by how down-to-earth he seemed. He had fewer airs about him than most other wealthy trial lawyers, let alone most senators.

Many of his friends started noticing a change—the arrival of what one of his aides referred to as “the ego monster”—after he was nearly chosen by Al Gore to be his running mate in 2000: the sudden interest in superficial stuff to which Edwards had been oblivious before, from the labels on his clothes to the size of his entourage. But the real transformation occurred in the 2004 race, and especially during the general election. Edwards reveled in being inside the bubble: the Secret Service, the chartered jet, the press pack, the swarm of factotums catering to his every whim. And the crowds! The ovations! The adoration! He ate it up. In the old days, when his aides asked how a rally had gone, he would roll his eyes and self-mockingly say, “Oh, they love me.” Now he would bound down from the stage beaming and exclaim, without the slightest shred of irony, “They looooove me!”

Once Edwards had been warm and considerate with his staffers; now he was disdainful, ignoring them, dismissing their ideas, demanding that they perform the most menial of tasks. He made his schedulers find out what movies were available on different flights so he could decide which ones to take. He would fly only first class or on private planes he cadged from donors.

As Edwards’s mistreatment of his staff and supporters got worse through 2005, aides interceded, trying to set him straight. “You can’t talk to people that way,” Hickman scolded him after one off-putting display. People are attracted to the nice John Edwards, and for a lot of them, you’re not that John Edwards anymore.

Edwards bridled at the criticism. “I don’t know where that’s coming from,” he snapped. “You have to consider the source … A lot of these people are hangers-on.”

One of the lessons that John and Elizabeth took away from 2004 was that they had relied too much on aides, advisers, and consultants. The political people hadn’t helped Edwards; they’d gotten in his way. If they’d just let John be John, he might have been president. Edwards had a phrase he used all the time to describe the problem: “the valley of staff.” In his next bid for the White House, he and Elizabeth agreed, they would circumvent the handlers, while John forged his own path. Rather than a campaign, it would be a cause.

The denizens of the valley of staff were astonished by the narcissism that had infused their candidate. But for a long time, they continued slaving in the service of the illusion at the core of Edwards’s political appeal: that he remained the same humble, aw-shucks son of a mill worker he’d always been. The cognitive dissonance was enormous, sure, but they were used to that. Because for years they’d been living with an even bigger lie—the lie of Saint Elizabeth.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

Even before the cancer, she was among her husband’s greatest political assets. In one focus group conducted by Hickman in Edwards’s Senate race, voters trashed him as a pretty-boy shyster—until they saw pictures of Elizabeth, four years his senior. “I like that he’s got a fat wife,” one woman said. “I thought he’d be married to a Barbie or a cheerleader.”

The Edwardses’ eldest son, Wade, had been killed in a car crash in 1996; for a long time, Elizabeth went to his grave site every day and read softly to the tombstone. The combination of her suffering, resilience, and imperfections made her a poignant figure. But it was the illness that elevated Elizabeth to a higher plane. She confronted her treatment with bracing courage and wry humor, emerging as one of the most outspoken and widely admired cancer survivors in history.

No one in the Edwardses’ political circle felt anything less than complete sympathy for Elizabeth’s plight. And yet the romance between her and the electorate struck them as ironic nonetheless—because their own relationships with her were so unpleasant that they felt like battered spouses. The nearly universal assessment among them was that there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing.

With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive. At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know that she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. She called her spouse a “hick” in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks. One time, when a friend asked if John had read a certain book, Elizabeth burst out laughing. “Oh, he doesn’t read books,” she said. “I’m the one who reads books.”

During the 2004 race, Elizabeth badgered and berated John’s advisers around the clock. She called Nick Baldick, his campaign manager, an idiot. She accused David Axelrod, his (and later Obama’s) media consultant, of lying to her and insisted that he be stripped of the responsibility for making the campaign’s TV ads. She would stay up late scouring the Web, pulling down negative stories and blog items about her husband, forwarding them with vicious messages to the communications team. She routinely unleashed profanity-laced tirades on conference calls. “Why the fuck do you think I’d want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?” she snarled at the schedulers.

Elizabeth’s illness seemed at first to mellow her in the early months of 2005—but not for long. One day, she was on a conference call with the staffers of One America, the political-action committee that was being turned into a vehicle for John’s 2008 bid. There were 40 or 50 people on the line, mostly kids in their twenties being paid next to nothing (and in some cases literally nothing). Elizabeth had been cranky throughout the call, but at the end she asked if her and her husband’s personal health-care coverage had been arranged. Not yet, she was told. There are complications; let’s discuss it after the call. Elizabeth was having none of that. She flew into a rage.

If this isn’t dealt with by tomorrow, everyone’s health care at the PAC will be cut off until it’s fixed, she barked. I don’t care if nobody has health care until John and I do!

The health-care call attained wide infamy in the Edwards camp. The people around them marveled at Elizabeth’s callousness—this from a woman whose family had multiple houses and a net worth in the tens of millions. Yet no one called her out on her behavior, least of all her husband. His default reflex was to mollify her—or avoid her. No one doubted that, as her condition improved, the increase in John’s travel had a lot to do with steering clear of his wife. What they didn’t know was that the road would soon hold other enticements, too.

“Get ready to get mic’d up,” Edwards announced to Brumberger one day in June 2006 as the campaign was beginning in earnest. We’re gonna have a camera operator and a documentarian traveling with us, Edwards said. We’re gonna show the world what it’s really like to be John Edwards.

Brumberger was stunned to learn that the filmmaker was Hunter. The idea was that she would produce a series of Web videos documenting life on the trail with Edwards. Edwards told Baldick, now running his PAC, that he liked the concept, that they should do it. Baldick objected for any number of reasons—but not because he had the slightest worry that Edwards was fooling around with Hunter. That was one thing the people in Edwards’s orbit never stressed over when it came to John, who they believed had long ago made the decision not to fall into that trap. And, anyway, he had always seemed … well, sorta asexual, at least to his staff.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

No, Baldick’s concerns were that the project would feed the ego monster. For months, he used the project’s enormous price tag as a reason to resist signing her contract. But eventually, a big check came in from one of Edwards’s donors, and that gave John his trump card. “Now Nick can’t tell me no,” he said to Brumberger triumphantly.

By then, Hunter was already a constant presence on the road with Edwards. Who needed a contract? There was history to be made! All summer long and into the fall, she traveled with him everywhere. Nothing about it was secretive: Her name was always on the manifests, and even Elizabeth’s allies thought that Hunter was legit, that Elizabeth had probably approved the project, given her fascination with the web.

There was nothing legit, however, about Hunter’s behavior. It was freaky, wildly inappropriate, and all too visible. She flirted outlandishly with every man she met. She spouted New Age babble, rambled on about astrology and reincarnation, and announced to people she had just met, “I’m a witch.” But mostly, she fixated on Edwards. She told him that he had “the power to change the world,” that “the people will follow you.” She told him that he could be as great a leader as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. She told him, “You’re so real. You just need to get your staff out of your way.” She reinforced everything he already believed, told him everything he wanted to hear.

Edwards swooned. He spent hours talking to Hunter, listening patiently to her ideas about the state of American democracy and advice on media strategy. (She had intuitions about Chris Matthews.) He ate every meal with her, sat next to her on the plane and in the car, offered to wheel her bags through airports. He told the staff to treat her like a principal. He behaved as if she were a combination of an adviser and a spouse. If Baldick suggested that she not take a trip, Edwards would resist. When Hunter wanted access to some event that Brumberger thought she shouldn’t attend, Edwards would order, “Let her do it.” Or plead, “C’mon, just let her do it.” Or whisper conspiratorially, “Just let her do it this one time.”

Elizabeth left a voice-mail: “You’re to have nothing more to do with this! You stay away from our family!” she said. “You are poison! You’re dead to us.”

It didn’t require a genius to suss the warning signs, and Brumberger was no fool. It took him a while to screw up his courage, but he finally did, knocking on Edwards’s hotel-room door one day that summer in Ohio.

I’m not accusing you of anything, Brumberger nervously said. But I need you to know there’s a perception out there that you have a different relationship with Rielle than you do with everybody else. I just need you to be cognizant of it, because your staff is starting to talk.

Edwards nodded and smiled reassuringly. I get it, he said. Thank you. Say no more. I hear you loud and clear.

Brumberger exhaled and walked out of the room thinking, Yes! Home run!

But nothing changed.

If anything, Edwards’s behavior became even more brazen. At the end of August, he brought Hunter over to the family’s new megamansion outside Chapel Hill. Elizabeth was up in Cambridge that day, dropping off their oldest daughter, Cate, at Harvard Law School. Hunter spent the whole afternoon and evening exploring the place, shooting footage of his family with her video camera, taking off her shoes, curling up on the sofa. She stayed for dinner with Edwards, the children’s nanny, and some family intimates.

Brumberger’s dealings with Hunter, meanwhile, were getting testy. Increasingly, she treated him and the rest of the staff as if they worked for her—and Edwards was doing nothing to stop it. On a trip to Missouri over Labor Day weekend, it had been decided that Edwards would fly back east on the private plane alone, with the staff traveling commercial. Hunter objected, demanding a seat on the jet with Edwards. An argument ensued. Edwards sided with Hunter. Brumberger was fed up. Arriving back home in New York, he picked up the phone and called his boss.

This is hard, Brumberger began. I don’t know how to say this, but I’m really worried about where your head is. I came to you in Ohio, I thought I got through, but the problem has just escalated.

“Okay,” Edwards said frostily. “Anything else?”

Brumberger was beside himself now. He flew down to Washington and met with Baldick; Peter Scher, who had been Edwards’s chief of staff for the 2004 general election; and Kim Rubey, Edwards’s press secretary. For Baldick, the alarm bells had already started ringing when he got a look at the first webisode produced by Hunter. It was filled with so much flirty banter and overfamiliarity between her and Edwards that it made Baldick cringe. When he and his wife watched it at home in bed on Baldick’s laptop, she turned to him at once and said, Oh, my God! He’s fucking her!

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.

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.

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.

On December 18, the tabloid published a follow-up to its October exposé, and this one was a doozy. Whereas the first story had not named Hunter, the new piece featured a photo of her six months pregnant, bore the headline “Update: John Edwards Love Child Scandal,” and claimed that Hunter had told “a close confidante that Edwards is the father of her baby!”

Team Edwards had known that the Enquirer story was coming for some time. Fred Baron, John’s friend and finance chair, had scrambled to coordinate statements from lawyers for the candidate and Hunter denying John’s paternity, which the piece included. It also introduced a new character to the drama: Edwards’s longtime personal aide, Andrew Young, who was asserting that he was the father.

The details in the article around Young’s involvement were as squirrelly as could be. The Enquirer reported that Hunter was living in a rented house near the home of Young, his wife, and his children in Governors Club, a gated community in Chapel Hill. When an Enquirer reporter confronted Young face to face, he first denied his identity and knowing Hunter—this despite the fact that the car she was driving was registered in his name—before announcing the next day through his attorney that he was the sire of the unborn baby. Drawing out the obvious implication, the story noted, “Some insiders wonder whether Young’s paternity claim is simply a cover-up to protect his longtime pal Edwards.”

The new Enquirer piece rocked the campaign to its core. Crazy as it sounded, the idea that Young was taking the fall for John had the deafening ring of truth. An attorney in his forties, Young had a history of run-ins with the law and a rumored alcohol problem. Though he’d done some fund-raising over the years, his main role with Edwards was menial: household chores, personal errands, airport runs for the family. His devotion to his boss was comically servile.

Edwards denounced the Enquirer piece vehemently to his staff. On the campaign bus, he railed at the tabloid: “How could they fucking say this? How could they do this to me? How could they do this to Elizabeth?”

Some Edwards aides believed John’s denials, thought the story was too far out to be true. But others decided to stop spinning the candidate’s disavowals to the media, so certain were they that their boss was lying. Too many of them knew that Young had talked openly about having had a vasectomy a few years back. A bit of math and a glance at a calendar made clear that Hunter had gotten pregnant around June, within months of the recurrence of Elizabeth’s cancer.

After the story broke, things went from bad to worse. John and Elizabeth were fighting all the time, sometimes all night long. On more than one occasion, she announced to the staff that she could no longer speak in public on her husband’s behalf or stay in the same hotel with him. Once, in the middle of the night, she woke up a trip director and commanded, Get me out of here! I’m not campaigning for this asshole another day!

At other times, Elizabeth seemed intent on convincing herself that Young was indeed the father. She ordered the campaign staff to assemble an elaborate chronology of the previous months, establishing the nights when Young and Hunter might have been in the same city. “When were they together?” she demanded. “We need to figure this out!”

One night in the last week before the caucuses, John and Elizabeth had dinner at Azalea, a fancy restaurant in downtown Des Moines, with Kim Rubey and David Ginsberg, two of the former aides from 2004 who’d left the campaign in large part because of the looming threat of Hunter. They had come to Iowa with mixed emotions and motives: to help their old colleagues handle the mammoth workload and to witness the final days of Edwards as a presidential candidate.

“Can you believe this is Andrew?” Elizabeth said over dinner. “How has Andrew done this to our family?” She solicited everyone’s opinion about Young and Hunter. Had Ginsberg and Rubey ever seen them together?

The two former aides squirmed in their seats and held their tongues—while John sat staring silently at them from across the table. Ginsberg and Rubey left the dinner astonished by Elizabeth’s herculean efforts at willingly suspending disbelief. But as disquieting for them as the scene was, even more disturbing was the possibility that they were wrong about how Edwards would fare in Iowa. What if he won? What would they do? What should they do?

The thought was occurring in the minds of many old Edwards hands, in Iowa and farther afield. The mainstream media, yet again, was determinedly ignoring the Enquirer. If that trend continued, there was still a chance that John could win the nomination—and thus deliver the White House to the GOP on a platter when the story eventually, inevitably, was proved true.

Tentatively, unhappily, but soberly and seriously, the Edwards old guard began discussing their obligation to the party to come forward with what they knew. When should they leak the truth to the Washington Post or the New York Times? Which of them would make the call?

The Iowa results, of course, rendered such considerations moot. For Edwards, winning the caucuses had always been the sine qua non of survival. Informed the night of the contest that he would finish a distant second, with Hillary a far-off third, Edwards put on the bravest face he could but thought, Well, we’re fucked.

Yet Edwards had no intention of going quietly into any good night. He had a contingency plan. Two months earlier, he had asked Leo Hindery, a New York media investor who was one of his closest confidants, to convey an audacious proposal to Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader and a mentor to Obama: If Edwards won the caucuses, Obama would immediately drop out of the race and become his running mate; if Obama won, Edwards would do the converse. Wounding though a loss in Iowa would be to Hillary, she might be strong enough to bounce back. The only way to guarantee her elimination would be to take the extraordinary step of uniting against her.

Hindery had presented the proposal to Daschle, with whom he’d long been friends. Daschle brought it to the Obama campaign. The talks were tentative; nothing had been decided.

Now, with the results of Iowa in, Edwards determined it was time to make the deal. A little while before taking the stage to deliver his concession speech, he summoned Hindery to his hotel suite and issued a directive: “Get ahold of Tom.”

Hindery considered the timing miserable. Obama just frickin’ won Iowa, he thought. Give him a chance to savor it. But Edwards wanted to set the wheels in motion—immediately.

Hindery left the Edwards suite and tried frantically to locate Daschle, but discovered that he wasn’t in Iowa. Calls were placed. Messages were left. No one knew where he was.

As Edwards delivered his speech, Hindery stood to his right, until an aide alerted him that Daschle was on the phone. Hindery stepped offstage and took the call, straining to hear Daschle over the noise of the crowd. “Tom? I’ve got John right here,” Hindery said. “You aren’t going to believe this, but he’s willing to cut a deal right now. He’ll agree to be Barack’s V.P.”

“Are you sure you want to do this now?” a dumbfounded Daschle asked.

“I’m not, but he is,” Hindery replied.

All right, Daschle said. I’ll take it to Barack.

But with the victory in Iowa now gusting at his back, Obama rejected the entreaty out of hand. Convinced along with his advisers that he was all but certain to win the New Hampshire primary five days later, he was poised to plunge the dagger into Hillary all by himself.

Clinton’s astonishing comeback in New Hampshire put an end to Obama’s hopes of a quick finish to the nomination contest—and led Edwards to believe that there was still an opening to strike a bargain. On the eve of the South Carolina primary two weeks later, he again dispatched Hindery to make a revised offer, this time a trade for Edwards’s endorsement.

“John will settle for attorney general,” Hindery e-mailed Daschle.

Daschle shook his head. How desperate is this guy?

“Leo, this isn’t good for John,” Daschle replied. “This is ridiculous. It’s going to be ambassador to Zimbabwe next.”

When Obama heard about the suggested quid pro quo, he was incredulous. That’s crazy, he told Axelrod. If I were willing to make a deal like that, I shouldn’t be president!

South Carolina brought an end to the Edwards campaign; after finishing a derisory third in the primary, he dropped out of the race a few days later. Yet for months that spring, as Obama and Clinton engaged in their epic tussle, Edwards continued in his Monty Hall mode, attempting to try to claim some reward from either candidate for his backing.

The trouble with Obama, from Edwards’s point of view, was his refusal to get transactional. When Edwards told Obama that he wanted him to make poverty a centerpiece of his agenda, Obama airily replied, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I care about all that stuff. Clinton, by contrast, proposed that she and Edwards do a poverty tour together, even suggested that Edwards would have “a role” in her administration. Edwards still had his eye on becoming attorney general, and thought the odds of getting that plum were better with Hillary than with Obama. But after South Carolina, the chances of Clinton claiming the nomination just kept falling—and Edwards didn’t want to back a loser.

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.”

Adapted from Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
Copyright © 2010 by the authors. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster