By Howard Kurtz and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Former presidential candidate John Edwards admitted yesterday that he had an extramarital affair with a filmmaker working for his campaign and repeatedly lied about it, but he denied that he fathered her 5-month-old baby.
Edwards said that he is "ashamed" of his conduct and that "it is inadequate to say to the people who believed in me that I am sorry." In the course of several campaigns, he said in a statement, "I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up -- feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself."
The former senator from North Carolina, a Democrat, said that the affair took place in 2006 and that he confessed the "liaison" soon afterward to his wife, Elizabeth. He told ABC's "Nightline" that she was "furious" and added that he did not tell her about a secret visit he made to the woman, Rielle Hunter, in California last month. As a candidate, Edwards often talked about the importance of morality and family as he campaigned with Elizabeth, who has an incurable form of breast cancer.
In October, Edwards, 55, dismissed an initial report in the National Enquirer that he had had an affair with Hunter, 44, as "lies" and "tabloid trash." He said in the statement yesterday that he is willing to take a paternity test to establish that he is not the father of Hunter's girl.
Fred Baron, a Texas lawyer who was the finance chairman of Edwards's two presidential campaigns, in 2004 and this year, said in an interview that he has been sending unspecified sums of money to Hunter without informing Edwards. The payments helped Hunter relocate from North Carolina to a $3 million Santa Barbara home and helped Andrew Young -- a former Edwards aide who claims to be the baby's father -- move into a $4 million home in the same city. Edwards said he was unaware that money was being funneled to his former aides.
"It was a horrible situation," Baron said. "These people were being harassed," he added, referring to Young and Hunter.
After dodging reporters at public events for weeks, Edwards confirmed to ABC's Bob Woodruff that he had a five-hour, late-night meeting with Hunter last month at a Beverly Hills hotel. The reason, he said, was to persuade her not to publicly confirm the affair. Edwards also told "Nightline" that he did not love Hunter.
He maintains in his statement that the affair ended too soon for him to have fathered her baby, who was born Feb. 27. The National Enquirer this week published what it said was a photo of Edwards holding the baby, Frances Quinn Hunter, at the Beverly Hilton.
Hunter has also said that Young, a former Edwards fundraiser -- not to be confused with the former Atlanta mayor -- is the baby's father.
Former Michigan congressman David E. Bonior, who managed Edwards's White House campaign, said Edwards had "betrayed" those who believed in him and is finished in politics. "Thousands of friends of the senator's and his supporters have put their faith and confidence in him and he's let them down," Bonior said in a statement, adding: "You can't lie in politics and expect to have people's confidence."
In a statement posted on the liberal Web site Daily Kos, Elizabeth Edwards said: "John made a terrible mistake in 2006. The fact that it is a mistake that many others have made before him did not make it any easier for me to hear when he told me what he had done. But he did tell me. And we began a long and painful process in 2006, a process oddly made somewhat easier with my diagnosis in March of 2007. . . . I am proud of the courage John showed by his honesty in the face of shame."
Jennifer Palmieri, a longtime Edwards adviser, said on CNN last night that Edwards apologized yesterday to his campaign staff via a conference call.
Top aides to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama declined to comment yesterday, but they had been moving to avoid having Edwards speak at this month's national party convention even before his admission, according to three sources close to the campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations. When a question was raised at a high-level meeting about the role of Edwards, who drew live network coverage for his May endorsement of Obama, campaign manager David Plouffe indicated that he would deal with the matter privately.
Edwards would not respond to questions from The Washington Post last week and did not return a call to his home yesterday. He told CBS's Bob Schieffer yesterday that he went public because "he just couldn't live with the constant pounding from the tabloids," as Schieffer put it. Schieffer added that Elizabeth Edwards had told him that "this is really, really tough."
The Edwards admission comes amid growing criticism of major news organizations for not reporting the allegations, even as they were debated on Web sites from Slate to National Review, in the North Carolina press and on Fox News, and were joked about on late-night comedy shows.
"We feel our reporting and our investigation have been vindicated," National Enquirer editor in chief David Perel said. "It took so long because Edwards was just so bold in lying about it."
A number of national news outlets had looked into the allegations but declined to publish them because of a lack of definitive evidence. There was also a wariness about the Enquirer, which has broken several major stories -- including a 2001 report on Jesse L. Jackson fathering a child out of wedlock -- but which sometimes pays for information, as Perel said the tabloid did in the Edwards case. The Enquirer also has a lower threshold than mainstream news organizations for publishing information from second-hand sources.
In denying the story in October, Edwards said: "I've been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years, and as anybody who's been around us knows, she's an extraordinary human being, warm, loving, beautiful, sexy and as good a person as I have ever known."
Numerous journalists said privately that their appetite for the story was dulled by sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter said Elizabeth Edwards's health is an obvious factor, adding: "To say the journalists should not consider that is reprehensible. Journalists can be human beings."
Some conservatives have accused the media of remaining silent because Edwards is a Democrat. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity told viewers last month that "if this were Dick Cheney or Vice President Quayle or any Republican, I've got to believe there'd probably be more coverage than there has been here."
The story began to draw more mainstream coverage after the Charlotte Observer reported last week that the birth certificate for Hunter's baby lists no father. Edwards ignored questions from an Observer reporter after a speech in Washington. "He lost the luxury of being a private person when he ran for president," said Observer editor Rick Thames.
Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative reporter, said he and colleague Rhonda Schwartz were piecing together the story while Woodruff, who covered Edwards's vice presidential campaign in 2004, pressed for an interview. "They felt the pressure that we were getting close to having it in a form we could report," he said.
Hunter was hired by Edwards's political action committee in 2006 to direct a series of behind-the-scenes films, which included footage shot in Africa and were posted on his campaign Web site. The first shows Edwards flirtatiously joking with Hunter about his effort to come across as authentic.
Little is known about Hunter, who acquired her last name through a marriage. She created a New Age Web site, called "Being is Free," that appears to be a few years old. In a section called "story of my life," she offers scant details about herself except that she was born in Fort Lauderdale in 1964.
Hunter told Newsweek in 2006 that she met the former senator at a New York bar where he was having a business meeting, and that she sold him on making the documentaries as a way to show the "real John Edwards." She told the television show "Extra" that year that "the whole experience was life-altering" and that Edwards "was inspirational to me." Edwards's One America Committee paid Hunter $114,000 for her work, according to federal disclosures.
In a 2005 joint interview with Breathe magazine, Hunter and novelist Jay McInerney said Hunter, whose name had been Lisa Druck, was the inspiration for one of his books, "Story of My Life." "It was narrated in the first person from the point of view of an ostensibly jaded, cocaine-addled, sexually voracious 20-year-old who was, shall we say, inspired by Lisa," McInerney said.
As for Young, two sources who had been close to the Edwards campaign, and who asked not to be identified discussing personal matters, describe him as a young, sincere, married father who is devoted to his family. One source said Young started at the campaign answering phones and moved up to North Carolina finance director.
While not minimizing the political damage to Edwards, strategists in both parties said he might be able to mount a political comeback several years from now, much as former president Bill Clinton rehabilitated himself after his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky led to his impeachment.
Don Fowler, a former Democratic Party chairman, said any role for Edwards in a potential Obama administration is "dead," but he added: "The country has a broad history in the Judeo-Christian traditions of forgiveness. In the long run, he could have a political future if he wanted one."
Republican strategist Dan Schnur said Edwards could resume a political career in four to eight years. "For better or worse," he said, "the American public has become sensitized to this type of behavior from political leaders."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.