It took two years, thousands of man hours and a cross-country chase to catch John Edwards cheating.
That was the easy part.
Even after gathering and publishing overwhelming proof that the man who wanted to restore America to the moral high ground as president had fathered a love child while his wife battled terminal cancer, the more difficult task proved to be getting anyone to believe it.
As Editor-in-Chief of the National Enquirer I devoted unprecedented resources to the Edwards story while supervising a large team of reporters and editors whose ultimate goal was simply to sell newspapers while exposing a hypocrite (not win a Pulitzer, although, hey, that would have been fun, if only to observe the whoopee-cushion effect it would have had on so many journalists).
While much has been written about the Enquirer's scoop, the key element of how Edwards was caught has never been told -- until now. The untold story (to borrow one of the Enquirer's famous catch phrases) is that it took the perfect meshing of technology and psychology to rip the Edwards-affixed label of "tabloid trash" off the mass-ignored expose and force him into a confession.
The Enquirer had spent weeks shadowing Edwards' Falstaffian aide Andrew Young and Rielle Hunter in a North Carolina gated community before finally publishing the story that she was pregnant with the candidate's baby. But when Young astoundingly claimed paternity of Hunter's baby the story hit with a thud.
Edwards' fecund ability to lie -- and persuade others to swear to it -- caught the Enquirer team by surprise. The story created no public frisson and Edwards continued his presidential run. The Enquirer's investigative team disbanded, demoralized.
I watched the video of Edwards breezily dismissing the story as "tabloid trash" over and over and days later I realized two things: the Enquirer had to keep chasing the story and we were going to need to make Edwards confess. The denial video offered me no clue how to do that.
Predicting and manipulating Edwards' behavior was our only chance. It was beyond a long shot but when your CEO funds an expensive operation and the result is a collective public yawn, let's just say sometimes fear can be as good a motivator as a sense of injustice.
That's when I brought in a mental health expert to psychologically profile Edwards and predict his behavior in certain scenarios, a desperate move that I hoped would provide some type of advantage.
The mental health professional does not want to be identified but he specializes in diagnosing and treating personality disorders and how they affect family dynamics. It took weeks for the professional to construct a detailed profile of Edwards. There are no notes or written reports. The following quotes are constructed from memory of the briefing:
"John Edwards believes what he says," the professional said. "He says whatever he can to make people like him. He turns it on in public. In private he's abusive and selfish. What kind of man asks his friend to take ownership of a human being HE fathered? That's unheard of.
"Edwards looks at himself as above the law. He has a compromised conscience -- meaning he will cover up his immoral behavior at whatever cost to keep his reputation intact. He believes he is who his reputation says he is, rather than the immoral side, the truth. He separates himself from the immoral side because that person wouldn't be the next president of the United States. He overcompensated for his insecurities with sex to feed his ego which feeds his narcissism."
The most important part was the absolute certainty of the mental health professional that Edwards would continue to deny the scandal -- almost at all costs.
"He will keep denying the scandal to America because he is denying the reality of it to himself. He sees himself only as the image he has created." I was told.
The message from the professional that changed everything was that while it would be nearly impossible to make Edwards confess, he would offer a limited version of the truth if that was the only way he could maintain control of the scandal.
Edwards had stayed away from Hunter in North Carolina. He knew the Enquirer didn't have photos of them together and that was the root of his confident lie. Now, I understood the most important element -- what to do after landing the next big story.
The profiler's assessment secretly became my bible for the Enquirer's renewed coverage. During the next few months we developed solid information on visits Edwards had with Hunter but I chose not to publish, knowing that we needed to catch him in the act.
It took months to gather advance intelligence about when and where he would meet Hunter. Technology afforded the Enquirer modern tools we never had before. Satellite photos gave us a detailed picture of where Rielle was and where they would meet. In my Boca Raton, Florida office we had constructed a board of the North Carolina neighborhood where she was stashed, and the location where we ultimately photographed her. Reporters on the ground sent updated photos and video. We could see every street, every house close up, with scores of photographs tacked to a bulletin board in a mini-recreation that helped us plan multiple options for how to deploy reporters and photographers.
Considering the fact that at one time fax machines were banned from the Enquirer office because the editor in charge thought they could be used to steal our information (true story), the tabloid had come a long way relying on satellite photos and live-feed video for real-time intelligence.
This same strategy was used in Los Angeles, with far less time to watch and wait than we had in North Carolina. But when John Edwards showed up at the Beverly Hilton hotel to meet with Rielle on the evening of July 21, 2008, a large team of reporters and photographers were on the grounds for the Enquirer, and he was photographed secretly as he confidently walked into a side door at 9:45 p.m.
The Enquirer knew what room Hunter was in, as well as the room where her male traveling companion was staying. When Edwards came down to the lobby at 2:40 am the Enquirer was waiting for him, famously chasing as he ran into a public bathroom.
Edwards was caught in the act. And yet I knew this still wouldn't be good enough. He would never confess, the profiler had warned. He wouldn't face the truth about himself. The Enquirer's next moves were all a direct result of the mental health professional's assessment from months ago.
I immediately posted the story of the late night encounter on the paper's website. It was important to immediately put the pressure on John, to let him know the Enquirer had been at the hotel the entire time he visited Hunter and their child, and that the early-morning run in with our reporter was the culmination of a planned operation.
There was silence from Edwards' camp. No denial, no statement. It fit the profiler's opinion; he was assessing what he could get away with.
We told the press that there were photographs and video from that night. Other journalists asked us to release the images but I refused. Edwards needed to imagine the worst-case scenario becoming public. The Enquirer would give him no clues about what it did and did not have.
I knew there was no viable scenario for Edwards to confess to the Enquirer. I faced the bitter realization that another news organization would reap the benefits of our team's hard work and get the confession, but I also knew that ultimately that confession would validate the Enquirer's earlier story as well as the new one.
Behind the scenes we exerted pressure on Edwards, sending word though mutual contacts that we had photographed him throughout the night. We provided a few details about his movements to prove this was no bluff.
For 18 days we played this game, and as the standoff continued the Enquirer published a photograph of Edwards with the baby inside a room at the Beverly Hilton hotel.
Journalists asked if we had a hidden camera in the room. We never said yes or no. (We still haven't). We sent word to Edwards privately that there were more photos.
He cracked. Not knowing what else the Enquirer possessed and faced with his world crumbling, Edwards, as the profiler predicted, came forward to partially confess. He knew no one could prove paternity so he admitted the affair but denied being the father of Hunter's baby, once again taking control of the situation.
Our sources told us Edwards thought he could survive the affair admission personally and politically. At the time, it was good enough for everyone at the Enquirer. The articles, the investigation, the nearly two years of work, had been vindicated and instead of an expensive yawn-inducing tale no one believed, we had a great political scoop.
As far as Edwards admitting paternity, we knew that would happen eventually too. We heard from mutual contacts that Edwards wondered if we had collected DNA from the baby and from John and run our own test.
Someone close to Edwards asked me about that and I laughed. Let him imagine the worst. After all, that was the only proven way to get him to tell the truth.
David Perel was the Editor-in-Chief of the National Enquirer during the John Edwards investigation and went on to re-launch RadarOnline.com, where he is now executive vice president and managing editor.
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