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John Edwards' highly scripted 'Nightline' interview

August 9, 2008 |  8:30 am

Edwards_nightline

After an afternoon of minor media frenzy, the John Edwards interview on Friday's "Nightline" seemed strangely anticlimactic. Of course, it followed not only the opening of the controversially situated Summer Olympics in Beijing but also Russia's invasion of Georgia. If the latter could not have been foreseen by Edwards, the former certainly was.

He had spent the last week strenuously denying charges made by the National Enquirer that he cheated on Elizabeth, his cancer-stricken wife of 30 years. But as it turns out, he did have an affair, with Rielle Hunter, who had filmed Web content for his campaign in 2006, and possibly bore his child. And since mainstream media were beginning to get involved, ABC's Bob Woodruff was invited to the Edwards home for a chat to air on Friday.  A chat that could only appear on "Nightline." Which airs at 11:35. On the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

Not that the interview was about control or anything. Edwards just wanted to come clean, in a highly scripted sort of way. But the talking points -- yes, he did have the affair but it was while Elizabeth was in remission; no, he did not father Hunter's baby; yes, he and Elizabeth remain committed to each other; no, he did not know of any payments to Hunter -- were less telling than the subtext. Which seems to be that discovering that he is not a perfect person has made John Edwards a better, more self-aware man. Thanks for asking.

The word "affair" and any of its synonyms were, for example, consistently avoided. Looking calm, boyish and oddly upbeat, Edwards seemed taken aback when Woodruff jumped right in with questions rather than friendly greetings, going out of his way to thank Woodruff for coming down to talk with him before he answered those questions. Then he carefully explained, as you might to a child, that in 2006, he had made a big mistake. That he had told Elizabeth about the mistake, had asked forgiveness from her and God, and that he took full responsibility for his mistake. When asked how long the affair lasted and when it ended, he declined to answer, explaining that he had made all the details known to his family but beyond that it wasn't anyone's business.

Of the two, Woodruff was so obviously more upset by the situation that it became, at times, just plain weird. "Were you in love with her?" he asked, his voice shaking, and I thought the man would burst into tears. Not Edwards, but Woodruff. Edwards simply shook his head in disbelief, reiterating that he has been in love with only one woman for more than 31 years and that it remains "a deep and abiding love."
Determined to find something approaching emotion in his subject, Woodruff pressed on, asking point-blank: "How could you have done this?" which Edwards used as an opportunity to "explain," with a brief tour through his own life story.

"I went from being a senator, a young senator, to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure," he said. "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."

It was an answer he had clearly prepared for; much of the wording was used in a statement made earlier in the day. It also bore a rather unnerving resemblance to the little speech given by the Republican presidential candidate (played so wonderfully by Larry Hagman) in "Primary Colors." That candidate blamed cocaine rather than narcissism but the power-run-amok theme was the same.

Edwards admitted to meeting Hunter last month at the Beverly Hilton hotel, where he was sighted by National Enquirer reporters, but denied that he had fathered her child. He had agreed to meet her and a male friend for the sole purpose of convincing her to keep the affair quiet. "I didn't want the public to know what I had done," he said in what was perhaps the most courageous moment of the interview -- affairs are bad for politicians, but cover-ups are worse.

But then he got a little slippery when asked about the photo the Enquirer had printed, which they claim is Edwards holding Hunter's baby daughter. The picture is blurry and Edwards says he has no idea who it is. Fair enough, but when Woodruff asked him if he remembered holding Hunter's baby, his answer was just plain squirrelly.

"You asked me about that photograph. I don't know anything about that photograph," he said, as if taking his cues from the Watergate hearings. "I don't know who that baby is.... I was not at this meeting holding a child for my photograph to be taken, I can tell you that."

If nothing else, Edwards made it clear to Woodruff, and to us, that he is not looking for sympathy, which is good because he won't be getting any. Any points he might have been awarded for not hauling Elizabeth along to look stoic beside an American flag were deducted by his self-congratulatory explanation of same. "Elizabeth is not here because she did nothing wrong," he said when asked, but could he leave it at that? No, he could not. "I have to be the man, to take responsibility."

Neatly deflecting questions about the impact this will have on his political career by musing that he was not certain he had a political future anyway -- "service" is what he sees as his long-term goal -- he all but laughed when Woodruff, still trying to bring things down a bit, asked if he had ever thought "it would end this way." "I don't think anything has ended," he said. "My Lord and my wife have forgiven me, I'm moving on."

Which I suppose one could see as a certain grace under pressure, or maybe it's just that pesky old narcissism that makes you believe you can do whatever you want. Like give one short scripted interview to "Nightline" and make it all go away.

-- Mary McNamara

Photo: AP / ABC

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