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Pigeon O'Brien

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How the John Edwards Affair Ended Up in the Enquirer

Posted: 03/03/11 09:15 AM ET

Lisa Druck was trouble. You'd run into her at Nell's where we all tended to hang out and she'd be in a panic. Some guy would be running from her, taxiing quickly to another club. She'd storm the bathrooms and you could hear her voice from behind the closed doors, operatically singing the latest drama.

Yet we liked her. There was something charming and feral in her aggressive bubbliness. The seedier stuff bothered my prudish self, stories of strip poker and non-monogamy. But I was seeing her ex-boyfriend and if I wanted to keep him out of the riskier stuff, I had to like her. So I did.

That was the 1980s. I grew up and years passed and Lisa Druck vanished from my life, only leaving behind her likeness in a shocking book by our friend Jay McInerney, Story Of My Life.

And then she reappeared, as Rielle Hunter. In 2004 I went to a dinner party for the anniversary of Jay's Bright Lights, Big City in New York, and there she was. She looked and acted nothing like frenetic, drama-dragging Lisa. We became fast friends, again. Lisa -- now Rielle -- was living in Boulder, in the carriage house of her former mother-in-law. I was doing publicity, website design and marketing. She wasn't doing a whole ton of anything, but she had some ideas.

A foundation was the center of the work, which we broadened to a website as a way of marketing her voice and image for a possible TV show, the "MTV guru." Rielle's friends Bob McGovern and Randy would help with logistics. We made a website. She paid for the domain name, I paid hosting. We spent five, six hours a day on the phone, gabbing and working.

She was really good at the guru stuff. Once I was on a miserable, rainy client trip. I moaned to Rielle. She was impatient, not loving my issues. "What are things you want?" she barked. I babbled about wanting prompt payment and value in my personal life. "No," she cut me off. "Money and love. Can you get those today? On this day? In the rain?" "Well, no..." I stammered. "Then focus on today. What's in front of you to do. The path. Don't be attached to outcomes. Don't DO, just BE." Oh. Ok. And the money and love came in time, as they will.

Soon the foundation and the website -- Being Is Free -- spiraled into too many months of fruitless work. I abandoned it. We spoke less, but a few months later, she was back on the beam. She had a crystal clear vision of what she wanted, and had moved to the New York area to stay with her friend Mimi. We rapidly filled in the site: her bio, cringingly titled 'Story of My Life,' a story of awakening called 'Shift Happens,' and 'Kids on Board,' the ever-important board of directors, which was mostly just a list of people helping Rielle. I came and went from this list. It was a fun gauge of how useful I was to old Lisa Druck.

Two sections remained blank: 'Fame I Am Lives Forever' and 'Where the Money Goes.' It's funny how those came in time, as they will.

As she made forays into yoga instruction in New York, there abruptly came a two-day silence. When she surfaced, it was loudly: "I met someone!" Her voice was thrilled. He must be really something. "What's his name?" "JOHN!" she sang. "Does he live in New York?" "No, North Carolina!" North Carolina? I pictured a skinny bearded guy, with enough money or mojo to catch her eye. "He's married," she quickly added, "small kids." I pictured the housewife left behind in North Carolina, exhausted, dressing a passel of infants while hubby journeyed to New York to meet with vendors. I pictured the tears, his hurried cell phone calls and Rielle's frustration. I gave it four weeks, tops.

But just weeks later, Rielle was in North Carolina visiting him. This was no ordinary John. She was over the moon. The website stalled. We talked about love nonstop. He was amazing, golden. My original vision of him dissolved as I tried to imagine the person she described: some godlike thing.

Shortly after meeting him, she'd mentioned they'd be visiting St. Louis. I naively offered my sofa, as penniless yoga instructors might appreciate free accommodations. Listening to television with one ear one night, I caught the words "John" and "North Carolina," and I looked up. There he was, John from North Carolina. Only this guy could produce that reaction. "SHIT," I thought to myself, "we're in trouble now."

John Edwards, of course, was the presidential candidate. His relationship with his wife was central to his legend. As poor students, they'd had their first date at Wendy's. And now he was the multimillionaire trial lawyer champion of the poor, devoted husband hotel-smooching my friend.

Rielle checked in often about her new love. This is madness, I thought, this is destined to fail. It was a looming train wreck. She continued to gush via email; he continued to show up on TV with his smiling wife. Guilt became my constant companion. Daily contemplation of this was gross. It was not something I believed in. How was I to reconcile Mr. Values and Miss Enlightenment with what was becoming a tawdry charade? A year and a half went by. Rielle was not experiencing her truth, she had her eye on the prize: a president.

My perspective dimmed over time. The couple went to Africa as Rielle produced a series of videos in late 2006 about the candidate. She thought they would 'launch' him, though on viewing, they seemed designed to launch them. Almost deliberately clumsy, they showed Rielle's familiar desire to blend MTV, Buddhism and her personality. They also closed with a heedlessly intimate Valentine: Boyd Tinsley of Dave Matthews Band, singing, "When you look in the mirror... Do you like what's looking at you?" An odd political anthem, the song was a nod to Rielle's "teaching" that when you liked someone, you were actually seeing your soul reflected. It had been central to the first encounter she'd had with the candidate on a Manhattan street. "You're hot/you're hot/that's your soul recognizing itself in me." Or something. I cringed viewing them. This would definitely out them. But it didn't.

Swinging around the one-year mark of their affair, the Edwards myth in the media focused more on family and, increasingly, wife. I could see a private battle being fought between wife and mistress. The wife was clearly winning, owning the narrative of happy couple and having the country's microphone. It was a dangerous strategy, going exactly against what was actually happening. I knew that Elizabeth knew. Instead of reeling her husband in, smartening him up and zipping his pants, instead of getting him to respect the trust of every supporter and voter depending on him, she went, with homey interviews about her marriage, woman-to-woman at Rielle. Look out, I thought.

My phone began ringing with inquiries: What did I know about Rielle Hunter? The first were chatty, friendly. I think I am correct in assuming that they were campaign functionaries or PIs. I said little. I asked how they got my number. "You're on the website," they'd say, or "Rielle mentions you." My name is Pigeon. If it were Jennifer, I don't think I'd have been visible enough to get these calls. I felt besieged. I knew what they wanted; I focused on hiding it. It was as though Rielle had left a suitcase of nukes in my garage and now I was on a watch list.

Rielle at this point was slipping imperceptibly away into the Edwards life. Her voice changed, then her phone number changed, "You're making interesting choices," I emailed, and she replied, "It's not what it seems." It's exactly what it seems, I thought.

The three people who could not be fooled -- by leak, headline, alibi or lie -- were the Edwards children. They had a mom and a dad, and there was a new lady they had to deal with. My heart ached for them. They deserved as easy and trouble-free upbringing as any children do. Every day I felt I was complicit in ruining their home.

Late in the summer of 2007, the New York Post ran a blind item, clearly describing the affair. A year and a half as a secret mistress is a long time. The train was wrecking. The primaries were heating up. And Rielle was pregnant.

The trickle of calls swelled. My phone rang a lot. It became a daily issue, hiding what I knew. I was a lobster in a pot at full boil, without really knowing when the water had become so hot. Panic attended my movements. I was hounded, wheedled and confronted. I was a wreck.

This is the function of the press in a democracy: It is to present the truth so that we may cast our votes knowledgeably. We have absolutely no right to know who kisses whom in a darkened car or pokes someone on Facebook. But other personal choices tell us if this person is fit to govern. What is this person's essential character? What might this person do once given trust? Does this person respect women as human beings? Does he take responsibility for his actions? Does he betray those who trust in him behind their backs? We don't just have a right to know, we have a responsibility to know. Our constitutionally mandated free press serves this role.

Rielle probably wanted me to think everything I had observed was somehow not true. But you'd have to drink super-powerful Kool-Aid to not be troubled by it all. It had to end, it was definitely going to. The question was just when and how much of the election -- and his family -- it would take with it. I'm still haunted by the faces of the people who happily made contributions to Edwards they could not afford. The dim morality I'd accepted was now a blind alley. The truth, it became clear, was the one light to find a way out of the hideous mess. Stop saving Rielle, I thought. Save yourself.

One day, I simply stepped off the treadmill while exercising and picked up the phone. I didn't even know what I was doing. But I found myself calling a publication that had left a voicemail I'd deleted inquiring about Rielle. I was going to confirm.

To my surprise, nothing happened. I got all braved up and no one would take my call. I hadn't noted who called me, so I got a receptionist. "Can I speak with the person writing about the, um, John Edwards affair?" I ventured. "John Edwards... affair?" Sneered the receptionist. I might as well have asked for the person writing about hating cute puppies.

My second call was to a big newspaper. They had called, repeatedly, and clearly were well versed in the affair whispers. Carefully, anonymously, I asked what would happen if I said anything. There was nothing they could do, they said, unless I went on the record and they used my name. Well, no. But I saw light and I just didn't stop.

My third call was to the National Enquirer. I had just finished helping a colleague work through an issue with them. I had a basic idea of how they worked: Stealthily. I called.
It was not a promising beginning. "I guess... John Edwards is having an affair," I stumbled. "The television psychic?" the other person asked. It was laughable. "The presidential candidate. "Oh," he said, "OH!"

The Enquirer began looking into the issue by visiting Mimi's house, and within hours, Rielle was brought into hiding in North Carolina. Everything went silent. Into the void stepped Sam Stein of the Huffington Post. His was a crafty story asking why the Edwards campaign wouldn't show Rielle's videos.

On the face of it, the story was a puzzled query saying almost nothing. But to insiders, it said everything. Sam had found a way of letting everyone know he knew. The story was now out but it was met -- to my bystander shock and horror -- with an incredibly efficient and aggressive campaign to shout it down. In Huffington Post comments people were calling for Sam's dismissal. I still don't know whether this was a deliberate use of anonymous vox populi or was the Edwards Effect, a reluctance to criticize the star. It was nearly unanimous and it nearly worked.

The day Sam's story was published, the videos "popped back up" on YouTube, presumably posted by someone with something to gain from this new attention. Someone really wanted the truth out there.

Two weeks later, the Enquirer story debuted, and the affair became known. A longtime Edwards associate, Andrew Young, claimed paternity and his family became chaperones in her exile.

Oddly, within hours of my call to the Enquirer, the bigger coverup -- the one that a grand jury in North Carolina has now been investigating for more than a year -- began. With pregnant Rielle in North Carolina, Edwards denied and decried the largely true article, which did contain exaggerations (and an "accidental" use of materials I'd provided to verify our identities), as "tabloid trash and lies." Soon followed the tales we hear now, of private jets, cash transactions, fevered calls to media to shut down the rumors, and a phalanx of people working on whitewashing the issue. The mistress story had just broken. The coverup story was just beginning.

Surprisingly, the evasion worked. As did Elizabeth Edwards's passionate, private appeals to the media that "the Enquirer writes about planes on the moon." The media wavered as Rielle was hidden. In July 2008, a memo went to the LA Times bloggers asking that they not cover the "rumors or salacious speculations."

Eleven months after the original Huffington Post and National Enquirer stories, Edwards was caught visiting Rielle in a hotel. It was just before the Democratic National Convention. Rielle was flown out of the country and Edwards "confessed" on television (the first confession, the one in which he denied he was Quinn's father) but included a troubling aside that he'd been with her at the hotel late at night because of her "troubles." The press leaped on this and my phone rang all night: She's blackmailing him for Andrew Young's baby! Appalled, I spoke out and was told again and again, off camera, "Why do you defend her? Edwards says she's a slut. Who knows whose baby that is?" It was a baby conceived in a relationship, it wasn't a maybe baby, a blackmailer's chip.

Andrew and Cheri Young are the public face of the secret-keepers. They too were privy to the icky secrets of the reckless couple and, like me, were taken for granted to cover it up. We were, the three of us, loyal to friends. But loyalty to friends who repeatedly flout the cover you've provided is a useless thing to sustain. Pressure makes one crack -- it did with me -- and the Youngs bore a hard price for breaking rank, after Andrew wrote The Politician, an account of his role in Edwards's life that shockingly mirrors my own role in Rielle's.

I tried to rally for Rielle. I'd assumed Rielle -- now the mother of Edwards's child -- was another innocent part of the widespread collateral damage, like his disappointed supporters. I'd believed in her and I'd sworn up and down she had not made a sex tape, that it was just a dirty rumor meant to smear her as a slut. I found out, after vouching for her character on national TV, that they had indeed filmed themselves having sex. I was crushed. While my gut twisted keeping her cloaked in her secret, they were making personal pornos.

I don't quite know how the story will end. A grand jury is sitting in North Carolina presumably investigating the finances and machinations of a hugely expensive and months-long effort to keep Rielle in rented mansions, and another court waits to consider whether Andrew Young invaded Rielle's privacy and holds safe a record of the discreet and upright couple having sex on film. Me, I'm at peace with my choices and finally living a pretty normal life, but I have to ask myself on a daily basis, when the phone rings and it's lawyers or reporters or investigators, why I thought any aspect of this was going to be okay when I knew better than anybody that Lisa Druck was trouble.

Pigeon O'Brien is a former magazine editor and current publicist and radio promoter. She calls the Hill Country of Texas home.