Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Political sex scandals can be sad, pathetic or astounding. A few are entertaining. The case of John Edwards is not among them
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John Edwards thought he would get away with it and, incredibly, for a long while it really seemed he might. The "it", of course, is the wrenching scandal of his affair with a former film-maker during his failed 2008 presidential campaign, which was unearthed by a supermarket tabloid, but which until now had reduced America's most prestigious media to embarrassed silence.

Mr Edwards finally confessed on Friday afternoon, usually regarded as "take out the trash time" – when embarrassing news is lost amid the low competing news attractions of the weekend, among them, of course, on this occasion the stupendous Olympics opening ceremony, and the little matter of a war in Transcaucasia. This trash, however, could not escape scrutiny. It stank too much.

Political sex scandals come in many forms. Some are sad, some are pathetic, some are astounding, some smack of divine retribution, while a few are downright entertaining. But the affair of John Edwards, former senator, vice presidential nominee in 2004 and twice a contender for the White House in his own right, is in a different category. "Nauseating" is not too strong a word.

Persuasive, glib, fresh-scrubbed and exuding "family values", Edwards is a former trial lawyer and politician whose message of ending the iniquity of the two Americas, the rich minority and the poor majority, resonated far and wide. A vital prop to that message was his wife Elizabeth, an engagingly outspoken woman and a wonderful advocate for her husband. Even before it was disclosed in late 2004 that she had cancer, Elizabeth was greatly admired. In 2007, the Edwards family revealed that the cancer was incurable.

Now, thanks to The National Enquirer, a parallel Edwards has been revealed. If there are two Americas, there are two John Edwardses. There is the political populist ostentatiously, even cloyingly, devoted to his family, who celebrates his wedding anniversary each year in the same fast-food restaurant where he and his wife had their first date. Then there's the other one, the Edwards who carried on an extramarital affair with a film-maker hired by his campaign in 2006 to produce promotional web documentaries, even as he was seeking the most powerful job in the land.

The Enquirer ran its first story in October 2007, suggesting the candidate had had a liaison with a campaign worker. In December it named the woman as 42-year-old Rielle Hunter, and alleged she was pregnant with Edwards's child. Asked about the report just two weeks before the vital Iowa caucuses, the candidate called it "completely untrue and ridiculous". Ms Hunter too dismissed the stories, and an Edwards aide, Andrew Young, came forward to say that he was the father of Frances Quinn, born on 27 February 2008.

And that for a while seemed to be that. But on the evening of 21 July, acting on a tip-off, the tabloid dispatched reporters to the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, where Edwards was spending five hours in a hotel room with Ms Hunter and her baby. Confronted as he left at 2.45am, Edwards fled to the gents' and held the door shut for 20 minutes until the reporters left. The Enquirer followed up that scoop a few days ago by publishing a blurry photo purporting to show Edwards holding the baby girl, beneath the banner headline, "Edwards with love child".

The dam of silence started to spring serious leaks: not in the ponderous "MSM" – or "mainstream media" – such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the major TV networks, but in the blogs, on late-night shows, in a few foreign media outlets, including this newspaper, and, most seriously for Edwards, in the largest paper in his home state of North Carolina. The continuing presidential campaign was also imposing its own deadline. Senior Democrats indicated they wanted the matter cleared up well before the start of the party's nominating convention in Denver. They could not contemplate the nightmare of the Barack Obama show being overshadowed by a lurid sex scandal.

Finally, at "take out the trash time" on Friday, the dam burst. Edwards admitted to ABC News that he had been lying for more than a year. But he adamantly denied he was father of the baby. Then, amazingly, he cited two factors that he seemed to imply mitigated the offence. First, he did not love Ms Hunter. Second, when the affair was taking place, his wife's cancer was in remission. A few hours afterwards, he came out with an even more bizarre formal statement. It contained an apology to his family and his political supporters, and acknowledgement of his "shame" at "a serious error of judgement". Then came an extraordinary passage, telling how, "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." Words more egocentric and narcissistic it is hard to imagine. Even though the admission itself was no surprise, the reaction was furious – and not just from David Bonior, Edwards's former campaign manager, who spoke of how "thousands of campaign workers" had been "betrayed", but also from the MSM that had remained daintily silent for so long.

But why had they? Edwards might not have won the nomination, but he was still a major public figure, who might have expected high office in an Obama administration. Perhaps they had been reluctant to soil themselves by association with sordid cheque-book journalism as practised by The National Enquirer. More charitably, they may have been reluctant to cause any extra distress to the immensely popular Elizabeth Edwards.

The result was that, in this strange tale, life imitated art. There is a classic scene near the end of the John Ford movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a politician who has made his reputation on the basis of a myth finally tells his local paper the truth. But the editor refuses to publish it. "You're not going to use the story, Mr Scott?" No, the editor replies: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Except that, in the case of John Edwards, America's most prestigious media outlets had printed nothing. At one point on Friday, just before Edwards delivered his mea culpa, the coverage had become surreal. Even as the MSM were keeping mum, the Columbia Journalism Review posted a piece discussing the reasons why they were not writing about something.

The long silence has also only reinforced suspicions about chronic liberal bias in the old media. But, almost certainly, the MSM will have opportunities aplenty to atone. Americans loves stories of sin, repentance and recovery. Bill Clinton, whose troubles with the tabloids date back to the Gennifer Flowers affair of 1991, is living testament that even proof of fornication in the Oval Office can be overcome.

But the road back for Edwards is a good deal more problematic. Much still remains to be explained. In the short term, the outlook is dire. Forget the earlier talk of a senior cabinet post or a Supreme Court judgeship for Edwards in the event of an Obama victory. His wife, who issued a moving statement of support for her husband yesterday, might well be invited to address the Denver convention. But it would be astonishing if he were granted the speaking spot to which he would normally be entitled. Edwards, by common consent, has shown himself lacking not only in truthfulness and moral stature, but also in judgement. His conduct has displayed a brazen hypocrisy and shamelessness.

And Friday's self-pitying statement is not the end of the matter. He denies that Hunter's daughter is his. But why, then, did he spend the best part of a night in a hotel room with his former mistress and her child, 18 months after their affair was supposedly over? And why is no father listed on Frances Quinn's birth certificate, even though Young has claimed he is the father? Or was that statement simply to protect Edwards as he launched his presidential campaign? If so, the cover-up assumes quite mammoth proportions.

For its part, the Enquirer suggests that the Edwards camp has been paying $35,000 a month to both Hunter and Young to keep the scandal under wraps. Who would write off such allegations now? Edwards indicates that the liaison with Hunter began and ended during 2006. But the chronology is still murky. One way of clarifying matters would be the paternity test that Edwards says he is eager to undergo. But this DNA test, so easy to organise, seems not yet to have taken place.