John Edwards was fighting for his political future yesterday as America's mainstream media began reporting a colourful scandal involving his alleged mistress, a disputed "secret love child", and an altercation at a Beverly Hills hotel in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
The married former Democratic presidential candidate, who is among leading contenders to be Barack Obama's running mate, saw his private life given more attention than he would like when Fox News claimed to have "independently verified" details of last week's National Enquirer story headlined: "John Edwards caught with mistress and love child." Reporters from the supermarket tabloid had confronted Mr Edwards at 2.40am on Tuesday in the corridors of the Beverly Hilton, as he was leaving the bedroom of Rielle Hunter, a divorcee whom he was rumoured to have made pregnant last year.
Amid scenes more suited to a Benny Hill sketch than the corridors of a luxury hotel, two journalists and a photographer chased Mr Edwards – whose wife Elizabeth is battling incurable cancer – around the building for several minutes. He eventually went to ground in the men's lavatory for a quarter of an hour, before being escorted from the premises by security staff.
The incident was reported in lurid detail by The Enquirer, and followed up in dozens of America's influential political blogs and news websites, which claimed that Mr Edwards and Ms Hunter were filmed entering the hotel room at 9.30pm.
The country's upmarket newspapers and major broadcasters refused to investigate The National Enquirer's claims. Tony Pierce, the editor of The Los Angeles Times, went so far as to order staff "not to cover the rumours or salacious speculations". Its unofficial blackout appeared to be holding firm until Friday night, when the presenters of Fox's 9pm talk show, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, ran a report that confirmed several major details of the Beverly Hilton incident, and asked: "Why were the reporters chasing Edwards, and why is this story nowhere in the mainstream media?"
Mr Hannity said: "I'm a family values guy, and [Edwards'] wife is sick and we wish her all the best. But I wonder if you think there would be a double standard if he were a Republican."
Rumours of the alleged affair have been doing the rounds of Washington for months. In October, Mr Edwards was forced publicly to deny a different Enquirer story, which claimed that Ms Hunter was six months pregnant with his child. "It's completely untrue. Ridiculous," he said. "I've been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years, and as anyone who has been around us knows, she's an extraordinary human being: warm, loving, beautiful, sexy and as good a person as I've ever known."