Please remember the people of Haiti, who need us now more than ever. Go to HopeForHaitiNow.org to do your part.
The truth has a way of finding us in the strangest of places. I found out that former Senator John Edwards was finally going to admit that Frances Quinn Hunter was his daughter when I was in Los Angeles, helping with the writing for the Hope For Haiti Now telethon.
For hundreds of former staffers, this is how we got the news. We were going about our day: getting ready for work, changing a son's diaper, walking the dog, or tying a shoe. For the world, it was another chapter in a political scandal that wouldn't end. For us, it was yet another reminder that our work with John will always be wrapped in a scarlet letter. For me, I was completely unprepared for what the last few weeks have done to my head and heart... and I knew the truth. John told me many details back in July 2009.
That is why this isn't a typical piece. It will not be quick. It will not be easy. But I hope it will show another side to this mess -- former staffers who feel a complicated mix of anger, disgust, and sorrow.
But there I was in a bungalow at CBS Television City when the truth hit. I was finishing up some edits. In front of me, there were piles of paper, a half eaten apple, and a bagel. At about 11 o'clock, I received a message from a friend at ABC news. He let me know that they were expecting John's paternity statement at any moment and asked if I would be available to do an interview on camera. I said, "Fuck."
The executive producers' office was right across from me: George Clooney and Joel Gallen were in charge. For the last three years, Joel has hired me to write CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute. This was the first time I had ever met George Clooney and he works just as hard, has a profound dedication to Haiti's future, and is a great writer.
Joel was headed out of the office. Everyone was wearing jackets and rain gear because tropical and torrential downpours were hitting the California coast. Everything was in the process of drying, shoes were damp from walking in all of the puddles, hands clammy and cold.
"Joel!" I shouted. He stopped and his Gore-Tex jacket made a sound that reminded me of the campaign signs that used to drop in gymnasiums at the end of events in the winter and shoot across the sandy floor. I showed Joel the message and he knew the history and the story. He smiled a little and knew what I was about to experience. He knew politics and had helped the Clintons with musical events in the 1990's. He looked at me and showing his complete dedication to the telethon, he asked, "Can't you ask Edwards to put this off until Saturday? "
Whether he knew it or not, he gave me the guidance to focus on the task at hand -- each experience was equally overwhelming on its own. The constant work and heartbreak of what was happening in Haiti and the sorrow of knowing that seven years of work and efforts and beliefs were about to get trashed and torn down, again. He was showing me that Edwards is the past and this is the present -- this is the work all those seven years were about and this is the moment where lives can be transformed for the people of Haiti.
I drove back to my hotel and waited for the statement. Here's another truth that hit me. I still hoped that this mess would turn out okay in the end. Not that there would be some Hollywood happy ending and everyone would be friends again, but that the truth would be stated, responsibility would be taken, sincere apologies made and that this family had a chance to heal -- this broken man had a chance to put himself back together and get back to his work. There just has to be a reason that for thousands of years in one form or another human beings have used a version of "the truth shall set you free."
Whether we were working on John's senate campaign in 1998 or the two presidential runs in 2004 and 2008, our idealism got the best of us. We were starstruck. We were hopeful that for the first time in 40 years, someone finally spoke about the millions and millions of our own people who live in poverty every single day, even while employed. They live in the shadows and are ignored by a group of leaders indifferent to their struggles until John hit the national stage. No matter how nasty this scandal gets and how sick to our stomachs we become or angry or filled with shame -- no one can ever take that away. John spoke out -- we spoke out -- while others were silent... still are silent.
I knew that after the publication of the book, Game Change, an inside account of the 2008 campaign, which paints a dark and complete portrait of the Edwards campaign, a storm was coming. I knew that Andrew Young was preparing for a book tour and to tell his truth in The Politician. I don't hate Andrew for that; I value his willingness to speak truth to power. His story is a cautionary one and every young person thinking about going into politics ought to read it and the memoirs about Watergate so they know that there is always a choice -- even in that gray area between right and wrong where politicians often ask their staffers to reside.
The hard truth is a number of staffers were probably asked to take a hit for their boss this week. In varying degrees, they were asked, "Do it for the cause." And so they wrote letters walking back a campaign promise or wrote political speeches in the senate office on the people's dime or they were asked to drive a "niece" home. That is how we get to a place in politics where a staffer claims paternity. "Do it for the cause. Do it for me... you matter to me."
The unbelievable and absurd details to this scandal have made it easy for the jokes to flow on late night TV, the anger to erupt on the editorial pages, and the judgment reigns down on cable TV. These are all parts of a scandal, and they give us an excuse to look away from another hard truth -- this is a sad story.
For the hundreds of us who didn't repair sex tapes with scotch tape, the truth and the details of John's mess, they break our hearts all over again. It's like watching and re-watching disaster footage and there's nothing we can do about it to stop everything from crumbling to the ground.
My hotel room was on the 19th floor and the ground below was deserted. There were a few stray cars braving the rain, but I didn't see a soul on the streets. The streetlights and the signs on Hollywood Boulevard shimmered a little as another downpour started pelting the windows with water.
As I waited for the statement, I wrote another script after reading a story about a musician who lived in a coastal town in Haiti. All that he had left was his guitar and he played it in the middle of the ruins. It reminded me of a song by Paul Simon, "The Coast" with an interesting acoustic guitar riff and the lines, "This is a lonely, lonely, lonely, life. Sorrow's everywhere you turn and that's worth some money." I played that and wrote until I fell asleep.
At about 3 am, my cell phone rang. It was a reporter requesting an interview. I answered, "I'm in bed. I don't mean to be sarcastic. I'm in LA." There was no point trying to sleep after 4:30 am. I made coffee and did a little more work revising scripts.
Then, I took a moment to read John's statement. It was very different compared to the one he and I had worked on over the summer. There was a caveat to responsibility with the line, "I will do everything in my power." There was an unintended burden of forgiveness placed on Quinn for when she gets older. Gone were the words "I lied." Two words fallen political leader never use when correcting a great mistake. The humble apology he had written was turned into the empty phrase, "these words will never be enough."
I never knew John was having an affair with Rielle Hunter. I never knew about the cover up -- even when the team from 2004 was brought back together in December 2007 to rewrite his stump speech before Iowa. I was skeptical when Andrew claimed paternity because I had heard the stories about his rumored vasectomy. But I never doubted John's words until he lied his way through the Nightline interview in August 2008.
That spring and summer before the interview, I had been working with John on his "Half in Ten" poverty campaign and writing a draft of his Democratic Party convention speech. John called me after I sent Fred Baron a note saying that reporters were calling me trying to learn if I had been asked to stop writing the speech as a way to back into the affair story. Even then, most newspapers were still reluctant to use The National Enquirer as a source.
I said, "If this is all false, then you have to defend yourself because when this cause loses your voice -- there's no one."
"I know. I know," he said, choking up.
"But if this is true, then rip the band aid off," I said.
John kept the lies going and never told me the truth until early July of 2009. After the Nightline disaster, I didn't completely give up on him. At that time, the limited facts I had about the scandal were bad, but forgivable -- not forgivable so he could run for office again or be a public leader, but forgivable as one friend to another. I believed that the person I worked for and was friends with was still there buried underneath all of those lies and would rise up and take responsibility. We emailed every couple of months and John didn't tell me about his moral shame until I moved back to Massachusetts.
I was leaving Washington, DC for good. Politics had done me in. I was unemployed without health insurance and headed back to my family's house. It's not been a high point in my life. On my drive up the East coast to Boston, a news story hit my Blackberry. In big letters were, "Former Edwards aide Andrew Young says the ex-senator and his former mistress, Rielle Hunter, once made a sex tape, according to someone who has seen Young's book proposal."
The story was so damaging, my Blackberry vibrated across the passenger seat. On that drive, I decided to send one last note to John. It was that old, "Yeah my life is bad, but I'll help someone else who has it worse" so self-pity doesn't take its crippling hold. It took me two days to send the note. It's difficult to call someone a liar, even gently. I said that you still have a chance to tell the truth on your terms away from this book. I sent him the draft statement and waited, knowing full well that I'd never hear back.
John sent me a note from his iPhone to call him. I did. From early July until the end of August 2009, we spoke frequently and worked on words. He told me that he had told the rest of his family the truth and that Elizabeth was against him going public. Every time he made a case or another's case about not telling the truth, my argument was always the same. "You need to tell the truth. You denied a child in public. You have to embrace her in public. Children need to see their parents do the right thing, even if it is painful. You have to apologize for what you did during the campaign and after. You hurt a lot of people. This is the right thing to do. And if you don't do this, then a couple of books in early 2010 will. It is your choice."
With Andrew Young and Rielle Hunter testifying in August before the grand jury and extra chatter about the sex tape, WRAL in Raleigh had the story that John was working on this statement. They used my name and I don't know how they got it because I had never talked to the press. Yes, I told a few friends about this secret and what I was working on. I'm pretty sure they didn't drop a dime on me. But the last time I heard from John was at the end of August.
In my hotel room, I waited a little longer in case John called. I don't know why I thought he would, but I waited. At 9:30am, I gave up. I went back to the task at hand and all day I got to do the work I love.
Later that night, I was leaving the stage after making an edit with Joel. It was dark out. The wind was kicking around the fallen brown palm tree leaves. The outdoor lights were bright and the clouds were moving fast, some hanging down like Spanish moss on southern trees.
The truth finds us in the strangest of places.
I stopped in the middle of the parking lot for a second to just breathe. Across from me was another bungalow with The Price is Right painted on its side. During the 2004 campaign, when John was on The Tonight Show, we tried to organize a trip to the game show. The entire plane of staff and reporters wanted to go and we just didn't have enough time for travel, taping, and travel back. My life-long dream of pulling down on the Showcase wheel dashed -- what can I say, I dream big dreams.
Seeing that sign in the stormy weather, reminded me of something John used to say back then that I hadn't thought about in years. John said, "I have learned two lessons in life. The first is that heartache and struggle will always be with us. We can't make it go away. The other is that people of strong and good will can make a difference. One lesson is a sad lesson; the other is inspiring. I choose to be inspired."
I started to cry in the middle of the parking lot: the loss of what had been, what we had all hoped for, this family in great pain, and yes my own personal failing for falling for all of the lies and the charm of a boss who was using all of us to prop up his lie. I stood alone in the CBS parking lot, looking at the game show sign as if it was a twisted version of the decrepit T.J. Eckelberg eyeglasses sign hovering over the freeway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's, The Great Gatsby.
There it was reminding me that I hadn't paid attention to actions, character, and the signs that were everywhere in how John treated other people, how they tossed people aside. I never had the courage to question, not why Andrew Young did what he did before he admitted paternity, but what it showed about John that he continued to ask him to do the unthinkable.
The good thing about darkness and rain is that they hide tears. I walked back into the bungalow and ran right into Drew Barrymore. I had been introduced earlier and George said, "Wendy's having a rough day. Edwards' old speechwriter." She stopped and pointed out this gray streak I have in my hair. I said that it was spreading and recounted the first time I found a gray hair -- getting ready for dance in 8th grade. She then asked, "How's it going?" referring to the Edwards mess.
It's a simple question, but it is a loaded one for many of us: one minute we're mad about how much money was abused, the other disgusted because the deceit was sociopathic in its scope, and at times devastated. I was about three seconds away from completely losing it and then I got paged by another producer and moved without having to answer.
On Friday morning, I learned that John had gone to Haiti and I was angry. No matter how true his desire to help, he should have waited. He should have known better. He should have cared enough about how it looked -- not for his sake but for the organization he was helping, the people he was helping. I read in an interview that Elizabeth was now "relieved that John had told the truth" and I wanted to know what had changed her mind from August until now? I kept my head down, continued to ignore reporters' calls and finished the task at hand and yes, hopeforhaitinow.org is still open, nearly $70 million raised and counting.
For thousands of Edwards' supporters, former staffers, and donors this is how we heard and digested the truth from John. We were just going about our day. While many of us manage to smile and mutter a "How about those Two Americas" and express our disgust that at least a million plus dollars were used to keep this a secret and tens of millions raised from ordinary people to prop up a lie, trust me when I say that the shame and sorrow runs deep. And not all of us would have done what Andrew Young did. Had John asked, most of us would have told John to go perform an impossible sexual act.
So how did this happen? This is politics -- American politics -- where dysfunction breeds like mold after a rainstorm. Like any story, it was a slow boil: one lie built upon another, another action causing a reaction, fear taking over the impulse to do what is right.
We put politicians where they don't belong -- on a stage and above us. We are starstruck when we should be sober about whether or not they are doing a good job. We demand perfection in their personal lives when all that should matter is if they are obeying the law and maintaining the public trust. We should use this scandal to bring all of our expectations for our leaders back to earth. Stop giving them a stage, confetti, and a theme song, and never forget that the faster they rise, the harder they fall.
That night during the Hope For Haiti Now telethon, Mary J. Blige sang a version of "Hard Times Come Again No More," which is an old song written in 1854. It begins,
"Let us pause in life's pleasures and count it's many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more"
We now know this Edwards' mess is going to linger. It looks like there might be a criminal trial, a lawsuit over the sex tape, and a divorce argued in the pages of The National Enquirer. But we can still choose to be inspired because here's what else still lingers: Haiti. They need us more than ever with the latest death toll climbing to 230,000.
Go to hopeforhaitinow.org, buy "Hard Times Come Again No More" on iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon.com or Napster -- buy the entire album and let's do some good. Let it be our inspiring reaction to this scandal's storm. Play it loud and see the task that remains in front of us in Haiti and here in America. We were right to care even if John did so much wrong.
More:John Edwards Affair With Rielle Hunter Frances Quinn Hunter John Edwards Affair Wendy Button John Edwards Rielle Hunter And John Edwards
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