John Edwards and the mystery mom

Note: Update appended at the bottom.

During the past 24 hours, in both print and broadcast media, there have been fresh stories about the Clintons, speculating on whether both he and she would be permitted to speak in prime time at Barack Obama's convention - in other words, the inevitable/predictable stuff about festering tensions between old guard and the new. But since the announcement late yesterday that Bill indeed will get a gig, the story has lost a lot of its sting.

Which clears the decks for a much more fascinating story: Will John Edwards get his turn at the podium?

On paper at least, that would appear to be a slam dunk. Edwards ran third in the Democratic primaries, he spoke up for the working-class voters, and he has nurtured a following since 2004. He endorsed Obama months ago, and few other Democrats would be as eloquent at the convention podium about the presumptive nominee. He's a young guy, with his political future arguably still in front of him; in fact, he has been mentioned frequently as a short-list '08 candidate for vice president or perhaps a prominent Cabinet post in an Obama administration.

Yet no decision has been made about an Edwards appearance. How come?

The reasons are obvious, even though there has been scant mention of those reasons in the major media outlets (such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC) that typically drive the national news agenda. Indeed, if the Edwards issue is not resolved in the next two weeks, during the prelude to the convention that begins on Aug. 25, the story will bust out anyway. The big-feet outlets will have no choice except to cover it.

I am referring to the persistent mystery, and the nagging unanswered questions, about the possibility of a John Edwards love child.

It feels a tad seamy to even write that sentence - what's next on this blog? rumors of alien landings? - but rest assured that Democratic insiders currently view the Edwards situation with great seriousness. As well they should, because this has become a legitimate news story. If a wide-stance Republican like Larry Craig is fair game, then the puzzling behavior of a national Democratic figure is fair game as well.

A quick recap, for those of you who have been affected by the de facto big media blackout: Last October, The National Enquirer (yeah, I know who they are, but bear with me) claimed in a story based on unnamed sources that Edwards was having an affair with a woman named Rielle Hunter, who had been hired by his campaign to film a series of videos. (Newsweek in 2006 had mentioned this video project, saying that Edwards had met the aspiring filmmaker "at a New York bar where Edwards was having a business meeting.")  In response to the Enquirer's first story, Hunter posted a denial online and Edwards called the report of an affair "completely untrue, ridiculous."

Meanwhile, however, something weird had already happened inside the Edwards camp. A popular liberal online outlet, The Huffington Post, reported in September that all the Hunter videos had been pulled off the candidate's official website - for reasons that nobody in the Edwards camp was willing to explain.

Fast forward to December. That's when The National Enquirer ran its second piece, saying that Hunter was pregnant, that she had moved to a house "owned by an Edwards backer." Hunter, in response, said that the father of her future child was a married Edwards aide named Andrew Young. A lawyer for Young also told the Enquirer that his client was indeed the dad.

Fast forward to late July, 2008. The Enquirer caught up with Edwards at a Beverly Hills hotel in Los Angeles, and saw him leaving Hunter's room in the wee hours of the morning. Edwards' response was to hide in a bathroom until security guards could arrive and spirit him anyway. Subsequently, during a brief exchange with a reporter in Houston, he dismissed the new Enquirer report as "tabloid trash" (an unfortunate choice of phrase, since that was Bill Clinton's line years ago, when he sought to dismiss Enquirer reports that were ultimately proved true). At the very least, the episode in Los Angeles prompted The Huffington Post to wonder how Edwards could be so stupid: "If there are rumors and you are innocent, why go visit the subject of those rumors at a hotel and leave at 2:45 in the morning?"

It gets weirder. A few mainstream press outlets are on the case. Hunter is now a mother, so the McClatchy Washington Bureau (which is staffed in part by reporters from Edwards' North Carolina) went looking for the birth certificate. The bureau found the certificate. The space reserved for the father's name is blank...which seems odd, given the fact that Young had already been named as the father. Earlier this week, the bureau followed up with questions, and was stonewalled by Edwards personally ("can't do it now, I'm sorry"), by the campaign ("Sorry cannot help you on this one"), and by Hunter's lawyer, who said that the decision not to name the father on the birth document was a personal matter.

So that brings us to the present day. The only reason that this story has not gone big time is because McClatchy, an estimable press operation, does not have newspaper outlets in Washington and New York, the two cities that drive the mainstream news agenda. But we're at the tipping point anyway; Jay Leno is already doing Edwards jokes on his show. Indeed, one key measure of newsworthiness is the growing concern among Democratic leaders. They're not necessarily sold on the veracity of the tabloid stories, but they do recognize - correctly - that Edwards' refusal to address the stories, and to dispel the various mysteries, is making matters worse.

Obama has a convention in three weeks, and the last thing he needs, at a time when he'll be trying to close the deal with millions of wary voters, is a sordid distraction. I well remember what happened during the 1996 Democratic convention, when Bill Clinton's second nomination was marred by the revelation that his chief strategist, Dick Morris, had been caught sucking the toes of a prostitute. Morris' instant resignation dominated public attention on Day Three. Clinton, however, was already an incumbent, and few voters knew or cared who Morris was.

Edwards is in a different category, which is why the insiders want him to speak out now. As former national Democratic chairman Don Fowler told McClatchy, "If there is not an explanation that's satisfactory, acceptable, and meets high moral standards, the answer is 'no,' he would not be a prime candidate to make a major address at the convention."

And, Obama aside, there is also the matter of Edwards' political future. This story is newsworthy precisely because it was Edwards himself who set the bar so high on character. As a candidate, he openly touted his close personal and work partnership with the ailing Elizabeth Edwards. And he invited scrutiny of himself, at one point telling Katie Couric on CBS that all the presidential candidates "have lives, personal lives, that indicate something about what kind of human being they are." At another point, during a presidential debate, he stated: "I think it is crucial for Democratic voters and caucus-goers to determine who they can trust, who's honest, who is sincere, who has integrity." 

In the days ahead, he'll be under growing pressure to address the disconnect between past statements and current reticence.

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UPDATE, late Friday:

Well, so much for the "tabloid trash" defense. Edwards came forward today and said that the Enquirer had been right after all, he did have an affair with Hunter.(Which now opens the big-feet media floodgates, including an ABC "Nightline" appearance this evening.) But he says the baby isn't his.

Maybe he's now telling the whole truth, or maybe he's just doing what Richard Nixon used to call "the modified, limited hangout route." Either way, he will now be known as the presidential candidate who preached the importance of honesty and sincerity while secretly stepping out on his cancer-stricken wife. Even if he gets a convention speaking slot, millions of Americans will be thinking about his actions, rather than listening to his words. Maybe they'll be cracking jokes. Or maybe they'll be reciting a sentence from the '06 Newsweek article that seems perversely humorous in retrospect. (Hunter, in her role as videographer, "says she sees the untucked John Edwards coming more and more to the fore.")

At least for the foreseeable future, he's toast.

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