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Book review: John Edwards exposed in 'The Politician' by Andrew Young

February 3, 2010 |  9:24 am
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Got a chief aide? Don't abandon him for your mistress. That's the chief lesson that powerful, philandering men can take from "The Politician" by Andrew Young. For all its finger-pointing and salacious details, this online bestseller is really about a bromance gone bad. "Where he once called several times a day, he now never dialed my number," Young writes. "When I got through to him, he kept the calls brief and guarded what he said."

"He," of course, is John Edwards, who did push Young's loyalty far; when Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter hit the press -- and she was pregnant -- he convinced Young to say the child was his. Then Young, his wife, children and Hunter all trundled off together to a series of resort-like rentals and vacation houses -- the last one with a $20,000-per-month price tag -- until she had the child.

Young had been working closely with Edwards for close to 10 years. Initially a volunteer fundraiser on Edwards' successful Senate campaign, Young used his lawyer connections to help find a place on Edward's North Carolina staff. He was an important player in Edwards' 2004 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he was also a close friend. Edwards and Young had brought their families on vacation to Disney World when Edwards learned that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had picked him as his vice presidential running mate. According to Young's account, Edwards would say things like, "I love you. You are like a brother to me."

Which makes passages like this, in which Young describes being a trusted witness to Edwards' affair, all the more sad. Does he really have to go there?

Whenever Rielle called me, she tried to talk explicitly about her relationship with the senator. For obvious reasons, she couldn't talk about these things with anyone else, so I figured I was serving as a sort of safety valve, letting her blow off steam. When the details about specific sexual acts, love bites, or the condition of her vagina got too graphic, I cut her off, but my attempts to set limits on Rielle were only partly effective.

Hunter, who produced webisodes for Edwards' campaign, is portrayed as a loose cannon with sex on her mind. Her affair with Edwards lasted, according to Young, for many months before a story about it appeared in the tabloid the National Enquirer. Young details the affair from behind the scenes: He carried a special phone for Edwards to use when talking to Hunter; he was there during a visit she made to North Carolina when Edwards' wife Elizabeth was away on book tour; and he caroused with Edwards, Hunter and others on the road during a night of rowdy drinking. Young even lays the groundwork for his version of events to be denied, describing in a near-discovery of Hunter in Edwards' hotel room in Florida, following it with Edwards seeming to forget the entire incident.

In 2008, Edwards had dropped another attempt at the Democratic nomination but was angling, again, to be selected as the vice presidential running mate. Elizabeth Edwards' well-publicized cancer had gotten worse, and Hunter had a baby daughter. In one of the more incredible details of Young's tale, he says that Edwards asked him to steal a diaper so he could do a DNA test; Young never did.

Young was packing up a house that Hunter had briefly shared with his family, he found a box of her things, including:

...a number of videotapes, including one marked "special," which had the tape pulled out and seemed intentionally broken....I couldn't resist. With scissors, a pen, and some scotch tape, I fixed the cassette.... As I pressed play, we saw an image of a man -- John Edwards -- and a naked pregnant woman, photographed from the navel down, engaged in a sexual encounter. The images were recorded with the somewhat steady assurance of a professional, and the senator's performance was ironically narcissistic.... As compromising images of a former presidential candidate and current contender for vice president flashed on the screen, [Young's wife] Cheri and I dropped to the floor, and watched, speechless.... We debated turning it off, but neither of us could actually press the button. It was like watching a traffic pileup occur in slow motion -- it was repelling but also transfixing. 

Is the book transfixing? Not exactly -- it's more of a whinge. Young is harshly critical of everyone around him but doesn't take responsibility for his own decisions. He went along with saying Hunter's child was his, but he could have said no; he never wrestles with moral issues. Instead he casts judgments.

Edwards' women get particularly harsh treatment. Hunter is portrayed as a sex-crazed loose cannon; once she has the baby, she's too attached to it (what does he expect from a single 42-year-old woman who's been packed off by the famous father of her child to give birth on her own?). Elizabeth Edwards fares no better -- in Young's telling, she's a controlling, vindictive harpy who leaves cruel phone messages for people who incur her wrath.

This is a far different image than Elizabeth Edwards projected in her 2009 book "Resilience," in which she wrote about love, loss and forgiveness. That forgiveness may have given out: last month, after John Edwards acknowledged that he is the father of Hunter's child -- prompted, many said, by the impending publication of Young's book -- Elizabeth Edwards announced their separation

If John Edwards did everything that Young describes in the book, he was selfish, deceitful and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to cover up an affair he shouldn't have been carrying on in the middle of a race for his party's presidential nomination. So it is remarkable that he comes out not seeming all that bad. 

Not that Young has forgiven him. He had been gathering ammunition for a long time; when he discovered the dirty videotape, he immediately decided he "now possessed something powerful" and locked it up in a safe deposit box. This does not engender sympathy, and every effort that Young makes to portray Elizabeth Edwards unkindly reflects back on him. Young feels John Edwards owes him. "The Politician" is payback.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: John Edwards and wife Elizabeth share the stage in New Hampshire in October 2007. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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