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Edwards’ affair puts him on the sidelines

Times Staff Writers

John Edwards, who parlayed a populist message and his image as a devoted family man into two serious runs for president, derailed his political career Friday when he admitted to an extramarital affair that he had repeatedly lied about.

The former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate apologized in a statement for the affair and said he had “made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs.” He said he took responsibility, but he also blamed his rapid political ascent.

“In the course of several campaigns,” he said, “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. I have been stripped bare.”

Although he confirmed a romantic liaison “for a short period in 2006" with Rielle Hunter, who filmed videos for his campaign, Edwards denied that he is father of her baby. The allegation appeared last month in the National Enquirer, which wrote that it had followed Edwards to a rendezvous with Hunter and the baby at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

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The acknowledged affair seems certain to kill any role for Edwards at the Democratic National Convention, set to begin Aug. 25 in Denver, and to eliminate him from consideration as Barack Obama’s running mate or a member of an Obama Cabinet.

“I don’t think he’s going to be making a living in politics any time soon,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College.

The National Enquirer first reported the alleged affair Oct. 11. Edwards, his aides and Hunter all denied it. But the tabloid continued to pursue the story. This week, it published a grainy photo purportedly showing Edwards holding the baby at the Beverly Hills hotel.

Edwards’ admission Friday stunned supporters who had taken him at his word in his earlier denials, and it came as particularly sour news for admirers of his wife, Elizabeth, whose battle with cancer had become an integral part of Edwards’ campaign and the family’s story. The couple’s first child, Wade, died in a car crash in 1996, and they decided to have two more children, who often joined them and their adult daughter on the campaign trail.

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Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer just after her husband and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election. The couple announced in March 2007 that the disease had returned in a treatable but incurable form.

In a statement Friday, she said her husband had made “a terrible mistake” but praised him for his “courage” in deciding to talk now about the affair. She said their reconciliation was “a long and painful process.” In a plea for privacy, she lashed out at the National Enquirer -- without naming it -- for “a recent string of hurtful and absurd lies.” “The toll on our family of news helicopters over our house and reporters in our driveway is yet unknown,” she said.

Bob Schieffer reported on “CBS Evening News” that he had spoken with Edwards and his wife, who “was obviously in tears.” “This is really, really tough,” he said she had told him.

John Edwards, 55, also discussed the relationship in an interview with Bob Woodruff of ABC News that aired on “Nightline.” He said that his affair with Hunter, 44, who could not be reached for comment, ended before she became pregnant. He also said it occurred while his wife’s illness was in remission but added: “That’s no excuse.”

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Hunter was hired in 2006 to make videos of Edwards for his planned presidential bid and was paid $114,000. Edwards said she was hired before the affair started.

Edwards told Woodruff that he had informed his wife about the affair when it ended. “She was mad; she was angry. I think furious would be a good way to describe it,” he said.

He was not in love with Hunter, Edwards said, only with his wife of 31 years. “She is the finest human being I have ever known,” he said.

But Edwards also said he had not told his wife that he planned to see Hunter last month. He said he met with her because “I was trying to keep this mistake I had made from becoming public.”

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Edwards said he would welcome a paternity test. “I know that it’s not possible that this child could be mine because of the timing of events,” he said.

He also insisted that the National Enquirer photo does not show him holding Hunter’s baby at the hotel. He said he was wearing a different shirt and does not remember the baby being present. “I don’t know if the picture has been altered, manufactured, if it’s a picture of me taken some other time, holding another baby. I have no idea.”

When Woodruff asked how he could have cheated on his wife, noting that she is widely admired, Edwards cited his dizzying political rise: “All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences. And nothing, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Edwards said he had “never paid a dime” to Hunter or Andrew Young, a married former aide who has claimed to be the baby’s father, and was not aware of payments made by supporters.

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But Fred Baron, a Dallas lawyer who was the finance chairman of Edwards’ presidential campaign, said that he had provided support to Hunter and Young because they were being harassed by supermarket tabloids. “We needed to get them out of North Carolina,” he said.

Baron said he had rented separate houses in Santa Barbara for Hunter and Young but scoffed at media reports that they were multimillion-dollar homes. He said that he provided the assistance without condition and that Edwards was not aware of it.

Most top political advisors to Edwards could not be reached or declined to comment.

“I’m terribly surprised and profoundly disappointed and devastated,” said Chris Kofinis, Edwards’ communications director during the 2008 campaign. He said former colleagues have been exchanging phone calls and e-mails. “Everyone is, I think, incredibly disappointed and devastated and heartbroken.”

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Joe Trippi, one of Edwards’ top advisors, told CBS News: “I don’t know if numb’s the word, but, you know, it’s more disappointing. My biggest concern is their family right now.”

UC Berkeley political analyst Bruce E. Cain said the timing could be problematic for Barack Obama as the Illinois senator continues to try to draw the Democratic Party together after a deeply divisive -- and long -- primary season.

“It roils the gender waters at a time when they’re trying to reconcile with Hillary Clinton’s supporters,” Cain said. “The 25% or so that haven’t gone over think Hillary was the victim of male sexist bias in the media and among the public. . . . The humiliation of Mrs. Edwards puts this in the spotlight at the point when they’re trying to negotiate with Hillary’s people.”

Edwards made a campaign narrative out of his working-class upbringing in small towns in South Carolina and North Carolina, though by the time he first involved himself in politics, he was already a wealthy and successful trial lawyer living in Raleigh, N.C. In 1998, Edwards upset incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

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His ambitions led him to the 2004 presidential campaign trail, where his adherence to talking points and refusal to speak ill of fellow contenders earned him a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and eventually landed him the spot as Kerry’s running mate.

Edwards didn’t seek Senate reelection that year, and after George W. Bush won his second term to the White House, Edwards immersed himself in poverty and foreign policy issues. In 2006, he announced a second presidential run.

But the emergence of Obama and Edwards’ early negative campaigning in Iowa undercut his support. He withdrew Jan. 30 with a second-place finish in Iowa, his best showing in four contests.

Rob Tully, a West Des Moines trial attorney who co-chaired both of Edwards’ Iowa caucus campaigns, said Friday that he had initially believed Edwards’ denials of the affair and was “disappointed.” “I do my own shopping. I read that stuff going out the checkout line,” he said. “Half of it’s crap.”

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But Tully was not ready to pronounce Edwards’ political career over. “That’s something that has to be seen,” he said. “The thing he has to ride out now is a number of supporters, such as me, that are disappointed in him over this.”

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scott.martelle@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Key events

Jan. 2, 2003: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina announces his candidacy for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

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March 3, 2004: He drops out of the race.

July 6, 2004: Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, selects Edwards as his running mate.

Nov. 3, 2004: Kerry concedes defeat to President Bush. Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, is diagnosed with breast cancer.

2006: Edwards meets filmmaker Rielle Hunter in New York. His One America Committee pays her more than $100,000 to produce four videos about Edwards.

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Dec. 28, 2006: Edwards announces his candidacy for the 2008 nomination.

Oct. 10, 2007: The National Enquirer reports that Edwards had an affair with Hunter. Edwards tells reporters: “The story is false. It’s completely untrue, ridiculous.” Rielle Hunter also denies the allegations.

Dec. 19, 2007: The National Enquirer reports that Hunter is pregnant and Edwards is the father. An ex-Edwards aide, Andrew Young, 41, claims paternity.

Jan. 30, 2008: Edwards ends his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

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Feb. 27, 2008: Hunter gives birth to a daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter.

July 22, 2008: The National Enquirer reports that it confronted Edwards at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, where it says he visited Hunter and her daughter.

July 23, 2008: At a news conference in Houston, Edwards says “the tabloid trash is full of lies.”

Aug. 6, 2008: National Enquirer publishes photos that it says are of Edwards with Rielle Hunter and of him with her baby.

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Aug. 8, 2008: Edwards admits to having had an affair with Hunter. He denies fathering her daughter.

-- Kate Linthicum

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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JOHN EDWARDS’ STATEMENT

‘99% honest is no longer enough’

In 2006, I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs. I recognized my mistake and I told my wife that I had a liaison with another woman, and I asked for her forgiveness. Although I was honest in every painful detail with my family, I did not tell the public. When a supermarket tabloid told a version of the story, I used the fact that the story contained many falsities to deny it. But being 99% honest is no longer enough.

I was and am ashamed of my conduct and choices, and I had hoped that it would never become public. With my family, I took responsibility for my actions in 2006, and today I take full responsibility publicly. But that misconduct took place for a short period in 2006. It ended then. . . .

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It is inadequate to say to the people who believed in me that I am sorry, as it is inadequate to say to the people who love me that I am sorry. In the course of several campaigns, 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. I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need my help. . . .

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

ELIZABETH EDWARDS’ STATEMENT

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‘I frankly wanted it to be private’

Our family has been through a lot. Some caused by nature, some caused by human weakness, and some most recently caused by the desire for sensationalism and profit without any regard for the human consequences. . . . But we have stood with one another through them all. Although John believes he should stand alone and take the consequences of his action now, when the door closes behind him he has his family waiting for him.

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. . . . But he did tell me. And we began a long and painful process in 2006, a process oddly made somewhat easier with my [cancer] diagnosis in March of 2007. This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well. . . .

I am proud of the courage John showed by his honesty in the face of shame. The toll on our family of news helicopters over our house and reporters in our driveway is yet unknown. . . . I ask that the public, who expressed concern about the harm John’s conduct has done to us, think also about the real harm that the present voyeurism does and give me and my family the privacy we need at this time.

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