The Quiet Dignity of Rielle Hunter

A small sampling of some of the things other people have said about Rielle Hunter in the two years since allegations first emerged that she was sleeping with married presidential candidate John Edwards.

John Edwards, as described by former aide Andrew Young in Young's book The Politician: "Since she was 'a crazy slut' and they had an 'open' relationship, he thought there was only a 'one-in-three chance' that he could be the father of her baby."

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John Edwards, in her book Resilience: "I have come to understand his liaison with this woman … Those with any fame or notoriety or power attract people for good reasons and bad … They flatter and entreat, and it is engaging, even addictive. They look at our lives, which from the outside in particular are pictures of joy and plenty, and they want it for themselves."

Andrew Young in The Politician: "Rielle was a very demanding and self-absorbed person who focused intently on her social life and fashion. If we prepared a salad for dinner and set it on the counter, she'd come in and start eating it with her hands."

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of Game Change: "She looked like a hybrid of Stevie Nicks and Lucinda Williams, in an outfit more suitable for a Grateful Dead concert than an evening at the Regency."

Rielle's sister Roxanne Druck to Entertainment Tonight: "I feel a lot of sympathy for Mrs. Edwards ... I'm very ashamed my sister had an affair with such a public man."

Now a sampling of the things that Rielle Hunter has said publicly in those two years, outside of prepared statements from her attorneys and court affidavits:


No crying TV confession, no Playboy centerfold, no book deal. Not a word from Rielle Hunter in front of a camera since Edwards was still a plausible candidate for the presidency and Rielle was just another one-time staffer, appearing on Extra to talk about the video "Webisodes" she made of Edwards on the campaign trail. Indeed, most recently, she has been trying to keep herself out of the public eye, petitioning for and earning a restraining order that requires former aide Young to hand over photos and a videotape that belong to her. (Young had previously alleged he possessed a tape of Edwards performing sexual acts with a woman who appeared to be Rielle.) Rumors at one point had her sitting down for an interview with Barbara Walters, but as yet no one has confirmed that the interview will in fact take place. The cable channels are still covering the Edwards soap opera. But they're forced to use the same antiquated B-roll—Rielle on the campaign trail in 2006; Rielle holding her 2-year-old daughter, Quinn, as she walks into a grand jury room in August of 2009. The real-time Rielle is nowhere to be seen.

Character comes out in a sex scandal. The public once saw John Edwards as a passionate defender of the downtrodden. Scandal has since revealed him as an empty vessel, passionate only about himself. His wife was "Saint Elizabeth," who suffered on through the death of a child and an incurable-cancer diagnosis to help her husband do good. Now she looks like an artful manipulator, ruled by vengeful hysteria.

But perhaps most surprising is what this sex scandal has revealed about Hunter. When the story broke, Rielle seemed the last person capable of keeping her mouth shut. She was said to consult psychics for advice and to confide details of her affair in friends with names like "Pigeon." And yet, for two years, she has behaved with more public dignity than any other figure in the Edwards scandal. In fact, she acted with more discipline and discretion than any mistress in the recent history of sex scandals.

This would hardly seem to be a title worth bragging about. After all, a mistress may have discipline, but she is still a mistress. However phony the Edwardses' pretenses, and however dysfunctional their marriage, the fact remains that Rielle actively insinuated herself into the lives of a married couple with three children.

What's more, in the long view of history, she hardly seems like the picture of tact. At the end of her love affair with France's Louis XIV, Louise de la Valiere begged forgiveness at the feet of the king's wife and then shut herself away in a convent. Mary Pinchot Meyer, a serious White House lover of John F. Kennedy's, kept her relationship with the president so quiet that her own sister only learned of it after Mary's death. Rielle is no model of discretion when compared with those women, nor to the untold thousands of women (and men) who shared the beds of powerful men and kept the secret so well that history will never know their names.

But in her own time, Rielle stands out. It has been more than two years since she earned national notoriety when the National Enquirer first alleged that she was Edwards's secret mistress. That's more time than it took Donna Rice to sign up as a spokesmodel for No Excuses Jeans after being revealed as the secret companion of presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1987. Two years out from the world first learning her name, Monica Lewinsky had sat down for an interview with Walters, sold her story to British journalist Andrew Morton, and launched her own line of handbags. Ashley Dupre, the prostitute who spent an evening at the Mayflower hotel with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, was selling songs on her MySpace page days after that scandal first broke and has recently written sex columns for the New York Post. Tiger Woods's mistresses talked, posed, opined, and disappeared before we could even concentrate long enough to learn their names.

Hunter's record of silence is equally impressive when compared with the other major players in the Edwards scandal. Elizabeth trashed Rielle in her memoir, Resilience. While promoting that book, she insisted that interviewers refer to Hunter only as "the other woman." Elizabeth's husband has been less successful in his attempts to manipulate the storyline, but hardly less visible. In August 2008, when news of the Edwards affair finally made its way into mainstream news outlets, John hastily arranged an interview with ABC's Bob Woodruff. In that interview, he denied that he was Quinn's father. We now know he was not telling the truth. In choosing to lie, he ensured that the story would stay alive for years to come.

Even though she's chosen not to speak publicly about the affair, Rielle has hardly lived a life outside the headlines herself for the past two years. Indeed, readers of the Enquirer, whose stories often feature information gleaned from Rielle's inner circle, might wonder whether she has really been as allergic to the press as she seems. What's more, with a 2-year-old child to support, she has certainly had motives beyond mere decency for staying in John Edwards's good graces by keeping quiet. But in the reality-TV era, there are easier, more lucrative, if less classy, ways for central players to ensure financial security than simply staying on the reservation and hoping for the best.

Many of Rielle's acquaintances might have assumed she'd take this more direct route. I'm certainly surprised that she's stayed quiet as long as she has. As I have previously written in NEWSWEEK, I got to know Rielle while covering Edwards's fledgling presidential campaign in 2006 and 2007. Her interest in Edwards's campaign was inexplicable, save for the fact that she was clearly drawn to fame and famous people. The life story she told me was sort of a celebrity version of Where's Waldo—how she'd dated the novelist Jay McInerney in the '80s and served as the inspiration for one of his novels, how she'd traveled the world with the hairstylist Sally Hirshberger, how she'd lived in Meg Ryan's home for a time. She seemed to like living a life close to the spotlight, if not directly in it.

She was also powerfully drawn to the press. At one point, in the spring of 2007, she told me she wanted to make a documentary about the way the media covers presidential campaigns. She wanted to follow me and John Edwards around as we both did our jobs and tell a story through our dual perspectives. When I told her I wasn't keen on the idea, she asked me if I knew other political reporters—perhaps from The New York Times or The Washington Post—who might be interested in participating. One can only imagine what she would have said to these reporters had the documentary panned out. That same spring, Rielle came to dinner at my home in New York. The Edwardses had just announced that Elizabeth's cancer was back and was incurable, engendering a national outpouring of support. That didn't stop Rielle from explaining to the group at dinner, which included journalists from other national publications, that Elizabeth had gotten cancer because she was filled with "bad energy."

In Andrew Young's telling, this sort of behavior was strategic. In The Politician, he claims that in the period leading up to her pregnancy, Rielle would use threats of going public with the story of her affair as a way of maintaining contact with Edwards. Rielle never told me about her affair with Edwards, let alone her strategy for keeping him. But to me, human nature seems to offer a simpler explanation. If you're really trying to keep your affair with a politician secret, you don't go on Extra, even if it's to talk about some innocuous Web videos. You don't seek out reporters, confide in questionable friends, and publicly bad-mouth your boyfriend's dying wife unless, on some level, you want the world to know the truth.

Well, the world learned the truth. And that's when things started to get rough for Rielle. In the early days, Americans came to think of her in the sleaziest terms: the former party girl who used sexual wiles and New Age mumbo jumbo to steal Elizabeth's husband. Most self-respecting women would feel compelled to say something, anything, in their own defense. And most modern mistresses would do much more than that. A fame-chasing Rielle would have come forward in the first days of her sex scandal, even if it meant defying John's wishes. She would have talked and talked as the interviews declined in influence, the sad journey from Barbara Walters to Billy Bush. By now she'd have finished her book tour. We'd see her hawking an Internet sex column or sharing Twitpics of Quinn to thousands of followers.

But something seemed to change in Rielle. She gained the certainty that keeping quiet was the best way to go. Maybe it was motherhood. Maybe it was seeing that being a celebrity wasn't all it's cracked up to be. Or maybe it was a tranquility that was there all along, a patient determination to keep her head down and follow a quiet path with lawyers and the father of her child.

That's not to say we've heard the last of Rielle Hunter. She is too rich and intriguing a character for her story to end here. Eventually, she will talk to someone. When she does the inevitable interview, the questions will be all about the affair: Did John say he loved her? Did she love John? Did she know it was wrong to go after a married man? But I hope someone thinks to ask her about what came after: What was the strength that kept her head down through the years? And why is that strength so elusive to the rest of the world?