The first time I laid eyes on Rielle Hunter, I could tell she was a story. She had frizzy blond hair with DARK roots, wore bright nail polish and moved like someone who knew how to work a room. She was on a cramped commuter flight and she was flirting with a candidate for president of the United States. It was July 7, 2006. I'd been sent to Iowa to write a piece on John Edwards. We were on our way to Des Moines, where I would be the only national reporter following him around the state for two days. From a few rows back, I tried to observe Edwards before the plane took off. Most of the other passengers seemed to have no idea who Edwards was. But this blond woman, putting away her bags, was visibly captivated by him. She tried repeatedly to engage him in conversation, but he seemed uninterested in talking. How the mighty have fallen, I thought. As John Kerry's running mate in 2004, Edwards had his own campaign bubble around him all the time; now he had to deal with strangers who flirt with him on planes. Of course, she wasn't a stranger. Edwards now admits that he had an extramarital affair with her. But at the time I had no reason to suspect there was anything between them.
She showed up at his first event that day in Des Moines with a video camera. She was trying to get as close to the candidate as she could. "Does she work for the campaign?" I asked Edwards's press secretary, Kim Rubey. "Oh, she's working on a documentary project," said Rubey. "We're not sure if it's going to work out." But it was soon clear that she was on Team Edwards. When it came time to drive to the next event, she rode in the car with the candidate. I drove behind in a rental car.
I struck up a conversation with the woman at the next event, as we waited outside. She told me her name and asked me what my astrological sign was, which I thought was a little unusual. I told her. She smiled, and began telling me her life story: how she was working as a documentary-film maker, living with a friend in South Orange, N.J., but how she'd previously had "many lives." She'd worked, she said, as an actress and as a spiritual adviser. She was fiercely devoted to astrology and New Age spirituality. She'd been a New York party girl, she'd been married and divorced, she'd been a seeker and a teacher and was a firm believer in the power of truth.
She told me that she had met Edwards at a bar, at the Regency Hotel in New York. She thought he was giving off a special "energy." I didn't pursue the topic, and when I filed my story, I made no mention of Rielle. But I was, to say the least, curious. I tried, unsuccessfully, to track her down in the weeks that followed. I thought she would make a good source. She clearly knew I was a reporter, yet she spoke freely and openly about her own life and the Edwards campaign.
Four months later, Rielle found her way to me. It was November 2006. I received an e-mail from her, complimenting me on some stories I'd written on the midterm elections. She wanted to give me a story. Could I come for lunch in New York?
We agreed to meet at Aqua Grill in SoHo on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. When I arrived at the restaurant, she was already seated. She greeted me warmly with surprising intimacy, rising for two kisses on the cheek. "So it's afternoon," I said with a smile. "What do you think, are we drinking wine?" She smiled back at me. "Bottle or glass?"
I would soon learn that there was no such thing as small talk with Rielle Hunter. She told me that she'd felt a connection to me when we'd first met, that she could tell I was a very old soul. This meant a lot to Rielle. Her speech was peppered with New Age jargon—human beings were dragged down by "blockages" to their actual potential; history was the story of souls entering and escaping our field of consciousness. A seminal book for her had been Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now." Her purpose on this Earth, she said, was to help raise awareness about all this, to help the unenlightened become better reflections of their true, repressed selves.
Her latest project was John Edwards. Edwards, she said, was an old soul who had barely tapped into any of his potential. The real John Edwards, she believed, was a brilliant, generous, giving man who was driven by competing impulses—to feed his ego and serve the world. If he could only tap into his heart more, and use his head less, he had the power to be a "transformational leader" on par with Gandhi and Martin Luther King. "He has the power to change the world," she said.
I had been nodding and sipping my wine through all this. "Do you talk about this stuff with the candidate?" I asked. "All the time," Rielle replied. "I'll lecture him on it when he's getting too much up in here," she said, gesturing toward her head. "He'll see a look on my face and say, 'Yes, I know, Rielle, "Power of Now" says …' " Rielle wanted me to know all these things because she wanted me to write about them. For the past five months, she said, she'd been traveling with Edwards with a video crew, capturing him in a variety of settings, public and private. She had cut her footage together into a series of short films, "Webisodes" that would run on the Internet. She hoped that with her unique eye for Edwards's true potential, she could show the world the real John Edwards and, in the process, help him to become the better version of himself. She wondered if I might be interested in writing a story. "Sure," I said, "if you let me see the films, we can talk about that."
By this point, we were each well into our second glass of wine. "So tell me," I asked, "what do you think of Elizabeth Edwards?" "I've only met her once," Rielle said. "She does not give off good energy. She didn't make eye contact with me."
In NEWSWEEK, I wrote a short story about how Edwards had brought this rather unorthodox woman, whom he'd met in a bar, into his campaign to make videos that showed off his unseen side—a less slick, packaged Edwards. We ran it in the PERISCOPE section under the headline EDWARDS UNTUCKED. I didn't mention Rielle's belief in Edwards's potential to be Gandhi or her distaste for Elizabeth. I wanted to keep her as a source.
When I next saw Rielle weeks later, she told me that she'd been fired by the Edwards campaign. She seemed perfectly cheerful about it, but she proceeded to tell me a tale of woe—how the campaign hadn't understood her, how they'd ruined the Webisodes, how they'd impeded her vision and how Edwards himself had failed to defend her. The chief villain in this saga was Elizabeth Edwards. "Someday," Rielle said, "the truth about her is going to come out."
By then, I had decided that Rielle was a less than reliable source. I continued to see her, but more out of curiosity than a belief that I was going to learn much about Edwards from her. I liked Rielle. I let her do my astrological chart. I began to feel a little like the nun in that old joke who complains about receiving a three-hour obscene phone call …Why didn't I just hang up?
But I didn't. I stayed in touch with Rielle for months. At lunch at the Soho House in late spring of '07, Rielle told me that she and novelist Jay McInerney were working on a "genius" idea for a television show about women who help men get out of failing marriages by having affairs with them. She said they wanted to pitch this idea to Darren Star, creator of "Melrose Place" and "Sex and the City." At lunch early that summer, I asked Rielle if she was dating anyone. She answered simply, "I'm in love." I asked, "Who with?" "I can't tell you," she said, "but maybe someday we'll all be friends."
That October, the National Enquirer wrote a story claiming that Rielle and Edwards were having an affair. Rielle called me to ask, should she put out a statement denying it? I asked her if she would give a statement to NEWSWEEK, which seemed to make her mad. She said she was talking to me as a friend, not a journalist. Though she said that our conversations had been "between you and me," we had never actually gone off the record. Our conversation ended abruptly. I never got to ask her the most important question: whether she had had an affair with Edwards. I tried to contact her several times in the months that followed, but she didn't return my calls. It occurred to me she was saddened that she had come to think of me as a friend, but I saw her as a story. In December, the Enquirer ran an article claiming she was pregnant with Edwards's child. (Edwards denies he is the father, and has offered to take a paternity test to prove it. Prior to the child's birth, an Edwards aide, Andrew Young, told the Enquirer he was the father of Rielle's child. An Edwards adviser, speaking on Edwards's behalf, declined to comment for this story. Rielle did not respond to e-mails I sent her last week seeking comment.) In early January, I was surprised to receive an e-mail from her saying she was thinking about me and hoping I was OK. I haven't heard from her since. But I believe she really did hope I was OK. When my father died later that month, she sent me flowers.