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Johnny and Rielle: The clues the media missed

Jill Lawrence recreates her decade of experience with John and Elizabeth Edwards and wonders if she and other reporters should have seen the clues – and noticed how John Edwards had changed.
Image: Rielle Hunter ,John Edwards
In this Dec. 27, 2006 photo provided by the National Enquirer, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, is shown with videographer Rielle Hunter in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, La. The National Enquirer Via Ap / National Enquirer
/ Source: Politics Daily

The latest evidence that John Edwards deserves a lifetime achievement award for most reckless, narcissistic behavior by a presidential candidate: He and Rielle Hunter, aka Camera Girl, didn't use birth control during their lengthy affair. At least that's what Hunter told Oprah Winfrey on Thursday. That may have been Edwards' worst mistake. Hunter says hers was agreeing to let Edwards aide Andrew Young take responsibility for fathering her child.

That decision, at the behest of Edwards and with the incomprehensible acquiescence of Young, might have been the low point of one of the most surreal scandals in political history. Or maybe it was when Young, his wife, and the pregnant Hunter – a spoiled space cadet in Young's telling -- set up housekeeping on the lam in California. Or maybe we haven't reached the low point yet. Maybe it'll come May 13 in a sworn deposition from Edwards about the graphic sex tape he made with his pregnant videographer, and whether he improperly used campaign funds to keep her hidden while he ran for the Democratic nomination.

When you write about politics, you have to trust your instincts as well as your reporting. It's a maze of egos, issues, personality, psychology, ambition and money, and there's a lot that goes on under the surface. Even knowing all that, The Politician – Young's book about his selfish and masochistic servitude to John and Elizabeth Edwards, and his complicity in their ruin – was one of the most disturbing reading experiences I've ever had.

It's not the only tell-all about the 2008 presidential race, of course. The best-selling Game Change has a lot of compelling material based on deep reporting. Yet for the most part that book adds juicy details to story lines and personalities that were already familiar to people who follow politics. In Young's insider's tale, what's stunning are the depth and duration of the deception, the number of people who enabled it, the potentially catastrophic consequences for Democrats, the vast chasm between the family's image and reality, and the sinking feeling among people like me that somehow we should have figured all of this out while it was going on.

I first met then-Sen. John Edwards late in 2000, on a small plane flying to Washington after a presidential debate in Winston-Salem. He sat down next to me -- slightly chubby, Dutch-boy haircut -- and didn't seem offended when I failed to recognize him. He told me who he was, I pleaded sleep deprivation, and we had a good talk. When we stepped off the plane, he introduced me to his wife, who had been sitting several rows in front of us. "I was wondering who you were having such a good time with back there," she said tartly.

And so it began.

I covered John and Elizabeth Edwards for USA TODAY on and off in both of his presidential campaigns. Since the great unraveling, I've gone over and over my impressions of both of them, wondering if I missed the clues.In September 2003, I made my way to a dusty lot in Robbins, N.C., to watch Edwards declare his candidacy for president. It was a homespun event — broiling sun, no shade, no food or water, and nowhere to buy any. Elizabeth, I remember, made a joke about her husband's youthful good looks.

Two months later, I cried as I read "Four Trials," John's book about his legal career and the role his late son Wade had played in an important case. The next day and about Wade, who died at 16 in a freak car accident while driving to the family house on the North Carolina shore.

There was nothing normal about any of it: The tragedy, the grief, the sharp swerve in John's career path, the two children Elizabeth had at ages 48 and 50 (when daughter Cate was 16), the presence of the younger kids in the RV as I was trying to frame questions about the loss of the brother they'd never know, John's reticence about all of it, and Elizabeth's well-rehearsed narrative.

But in the wake of such horror, who can pass judgment on what's normal or not, appropriate or not? To me, with sons aged 14 and 18 at the time, they seemed miraculous. They were functioning and they were moving forward.

Right before the Iowa caucuses, I drove out to Winterset for a town hall. It was late evening, the final stop in a long day for the candidate. As he began to speak, his face lit up: Elizabeth and the two younger children had surprised him by showing up. The children ran to him through the crowd; he lifted them in his arms, and he grinned at his wife. It seemed like a and I wrote it that way -- but who knows?

Elizabeth went on to become a sympathetic figure and role model with the discovery of her breast cancer in late 2004.

The next time I really paid attention to her husband was when he decided on short notice to formally announce his second campaign during Christmas week 2006 in New Orleans. Campaign aides urged us to arrive the afternoon before, so we could dine with the candidate at one of the city's amazing restaurants. But the plan changed. We ate at the hotel, and Edwards stayed for just a half hour or so; he didn't eat.

As soon as Rielle Hunter's name surfaced, I assumed he had arranged the evening that way in order to rush back to her in his room. Young's book confirms my hunch. Hunter woke up in the senator's room and told Young that she "felt just like his First Lady," he writes.

After the non-dinner, I am embarrassed to recall thinking appreciatively that Edwards was the only presidential candidate who had ever asked me about my kids. I felt only marginally better recently when I learned that another reporter was smitten with Edwards when, in his Senate days, he returned a call himself rather than through an aide.

Like so much about the Edwards saga (the 28,000-square-foot house!), the New Orleans announcement was odd. Edwards staged it in the muddy yard of a Katrina-wrecked house in the Lower 9th ward. Elizabeth was conspicuously absent, as were all three children (but Hunter was there, darting around with her video camera). The press corps dutifully documented his unorthodox entry into the race, wearing jeans and rugged shoes, shoveling dirt, looking less like a prospective president than the handsome young star of a TV ad for AmeriCorps. His "wannabe first lady," Young reports, accompanied Edwards on his announcement tour and ended up face to face with Elizabeth at a homecoming rally in North Carolina.

That night, Young writes, Edwards told his wife that Hunter had been a one-night stand, that he was going to fire her, and that Young was now having an affair with her. It was months before Young learned that he'd been cast as the adulterer. When Hunter became pregnant, Edwards told his wife it was Young's child. Young didn't know that at the time, either.

Three months later, the Edwardses held a press conference to disclose the return of Elizabeth's cancer. Her tale of discovering the recurrence when he gave her a "big hug" (not true, Young says), his strange joke about beating her, and his air of bemusement, even physical detachment, all niggled at me.

But there was no time to ponder the marriage. I was on deadline to write a . Now I read that piece and cringe at its depiction of a devoted, courageous couple.

As the campaign unfolded, I sensed a similar detachment, a perfunctory quality, to Edwards' town halls. He was different than he had been in 2003.

The cancer recurrence was an opportunity to drop out of the race and spare his party. So were his primary losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Instead he tried to bargain for a repeat vice presidential run with whoever won the nomination, and later, to become attorney general. Still later, when the National Enquirer caught him visiting Hunter and their baby in Beverly Hills, he publicly acknowledged the affair but not the child. Finally this year, amid child support negotiations, Hunter's suit to wrest the sex tape from Young, and the upcoming release date of The Politician, Edwards officially fessed up.

Young, a lawyer, tries hard to explain how he became a manservant to the Edwards family, from moving their furniture and assembling their children's Christmas gifts to raising money, concealing an affair, and later pretending it was his affair and love child— all the while neglecting and imposing on his own wife and three children. He wanted to work for a president.

Later, he wanted the job Edwards had promised him, running a post-campaign poverty foundation funded by Bunny Mellon, widow of Mellon Bank heir Paul Mellon.

After donating $6 million, much of it used for Rielle's expenses and the California escape, Mellon said she could not go ahead with the foundation. So Young's reward for his decade-plus of service was to be morally compromised and unemployable.

He says he wrote the book to support his family and clear his name. It is no doubt serving the first purpose (although I borrowed it from the library). But no one's name gets cleared here. Instead the book exposes and tarnishes the Edwards family and the many people — Young, his wife, the nanny, the aides, the advisers, the donors — who protected Edwards at the expense of Democrats and the country.

OK, yes, and at the expense of reporter pride. My colleague Walter Shapiro wrote a whole Salon article about his embarrassment at having so badly misjudged Edwards. Yet he also writes that the "press pack" often gets it "mostly wrong." He offers several examples, and now there's another name to add to the list: John McCain, whose maverick personality and issue positions in his 1999-2000 presidential campaign were apparently a phase.

The oddities I noticed in the Edwards campaign, the flickers of unease I felt, were like the dots that intelligence officials are always trying to connect to prevent terrorist attacks. They seem obvious in retrospect. But to make sense of them prospectively, you'd have to imagine the worst of all people all the time. That's a good way to detect terrorists and a cynical way to practice journalism.

Still, a little wariness is in order. There are only so many times you can lose your innocence.