John Edwards: his mistress, the new age guru, and the cover-up

Once a clean-cut hero for the Democrats, the Senator's fall from grace has been rapid and complete following more lurid revelations about the affair he had while his wife battled cancer

It was the best he could do in severely botched circumstances. John Edwards, the former US Senator with that sincerer-than-thou southern drawl, went on late night television to acknowledge what a certain tabloid newspaper had been hollering for months. Yes, he had had an extra-marital affair with a videographer who had once worked for him. It was over. He loves his wife. He was sorry. End of story.

Or not. A full week later – with the Democratic Convention in Denver just days away – and the story of Mr Edwards's dalliance with the film-maker, Rielle Hunter, won't lie down. In short order, we have learned of a payment of more than $14,000 (£7,000) that was paid to Ms Hunter months after her work for the campaign was done, that a well-known Texas lawyer and Democratic fundraiser called Fred Baron made additional cash transfers to her and to the man who she claims fathered a child she bore last February (a former aide to the Senator called Andrew Young) and that Mr Baron may also have helped in providing housing for Ms Hunter after she left the campaign, first in North Carolina and then in California.

All this and a steady stream of other related tidbits – some provided by a self-described New Age guru and former close friend of Ms Hunter named Pigeon O'Brien – add to the growing impression that there is more to the Edwards' story than just family tragedy and deception. Namely, did the campaign and its staff (with or without Mr Edwards knowing) channel funds to Ms Hunter to buy her silence at a time when Mr Edwards was embarking on a campaign to become the president of the country? And, perhaps more disturbing still, did that deal include an agreement to pin the paternity of the love child on the aide, Mr Young. Just days before the start of the Democratic convention in Denver, which will culminate in the crowning of Barack Obama, are we, in fact, seeing the early outlines of a first-rate political cover-up?

It is because this is not just trivial voyeurism into a private story of marital mess, that the story the Democrats need to go away, just won't. Mr Baron, who hosted a fundraiser for Mr Obama in Colorado the night before Mr Edwards went on national TV to bare his contrite soul, is starting finally to give some substance to the rumours of his involvement in taking care of Ms Hunter as Mr Edward's campaign got off the ground.

Not that she can really know for sure, but Pigeon O'Brien has meanwhile been putting in her penny's worth about the child's paternity on the breakfast TV shows. Mr Young, she says, is not the Dad. The suspicions regarding paternity only deepened when Ms Hunter let it be known that she has no interest in submitting any of the child's DNA for a paternity test. The full extent of Mr Baron's part in this play remains blurry but is becoming more clear.

It was Mr Baron, who had served as finance chairman on Mr Edwards' campaign as well as on the 2004 campaign of John Kerry, for instance, who reportedly recommended the respective lawyers who ended up speaking for Mr Young and for Ms Hunter, the one confirming that Mr Young was the father of the child and other saying that Mr Edwards was not. And Mr Baron stepped forward to help Ms Hunter in other ways, too, both with occasional cash contributions and in finding her housing after the child was born.

"I have a brief recollection of giving someone some cash," Mr Baron admitted to The New York Times. "My assumption is I loaned some small amount of money to both of them." Elsewhere, Mr Baron last week said that whatever else he did or did not do for Hunter and Young, it was all with a view to keeping them away from prying tabloid reporters and he did all of it without the knowledge of Mr Edwards.

Then there is the matter of Ms Hunter's accommodations. By the middle of 2007, long after the affair was meant to be over and the child was already born, she moved into a house in a gated community in Raleigh, North Carolina – the same gated community where Mr Young lived with his wife and three children. Later that year, Ms Hunter and the Youngs moved to a new home in California. For a while at least, they were all living under the same roof, a rum arrangement for sure, particularly for Mr Young's wife. Mr Baron told the Times that he had covered some of the costs of that move with his own money.

Attracting red flags all last week were the circumstances of a $14,086, payment made to Ms Hunter in April 2007 with funds from Mr Edwards' now defunct political action committee, several months after her contract to make short videos for the candidate's web site had been terminated. Former aides to the Senator now insist it was a legitimate late payment for footage she had shot that had never been used.

Ms O'Brien, meanwhile, does not purport to have any window on to any of the financial goings on, only into the heart of Ms Hunter. The two were good friends – or used to be – and shared an interest in New Age teaching. Indeed, Pigeon helped Rielle create a web site for herself called beingisfree.org.

Importantly, Ms O'Brien is adamant that Mr Edwards has been fibbing about the dates and duration of the affair. It started, she says, not in the autumn of 2006 but at the start of the year after meeting for the first time at the Regency Hotel in New York. Moreover, according to Ms O'Brien during those early months of visiting North Carolina, the home state of Mr Edwards, she spoke only of him and not once of Mr Young, the purported father of her child.

When an interviewer on CBS last week asked Ms O'Brien if she believed that Mr Edwards was in fact the father, her answer was instant. "I do. I don't see any other explanation. She would not have a child with someone she doesn't love and she loves him."

Democrats have been rehearsing the what-ifs about Senator Edwards all week. What if he had decided against running and his absence had allowed Hillary Clinton to win Iowa in January? (Answer: she, not Barack Obama, might very well be the nominee now.) What if he had somehow caught fire in the primaries and he was their nominee when the extra-marital beans started spilling? (Doesn't bare thinking about.) But more urgent now is calculating to what extent the ripples from the Edward quake might damage the party at its convention in Denver and at the polls in November.

Republicans cannot throw stones when it comes to politics and bad behaviour. But this is the year when politics were meant to be upbeat and hopeful, at least according to the Democratic script. If the Edwards campaign is found to have perpetrated a cover-up, the American voters will want an explanation. If it involved a deal to conceal the Senator's paternity of the child, they may want to tear him limb from limb.

At the very least, the Edwards affair is an unwelcome downer. As Margaret Carlson, a political commentator for Bloomberg News put it: "Lying, regardless of who engages in it, rebounds to the detriment of the party that asks people to believe they can do better."

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