Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who cast himself as the most electable of Democratic presidential hopefuls, admitted Friday that he held — and lied about — a secret that could have destroyed his campaign and his party’s hopes for the White House.
Edwards’ confirmation of an extramarital affair with a woman he met in a New York bar shakes the public persona of a man whose image was deeply linked to his role as a devoted husband. It effectively rules him out as a vice presidential nominee, and it may cost him a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention — though Edwards is still considering a convention appearance.
Edwards confirmed to ABC News’s Bob Woodruff, in an interview airing Friday night on "Nightline," that he had an affair with Reille Hunter, 42, whom he hired to make a documentary film of his 2006 campaign.
His interview confirmed a series of reports in the National Enquirer suggesting that the two had an affair, reports that people around him had gradually come to accept as true.
Edwards told Woodruff that he did have an affair with Hunter but said that he did not love her, ABC News said in a press release.
He denied being the father of Hunter’s child and said his wife, Elizabeth, learned of the affair in 2006, ABC said. Edwards also tells Woodruff that he began the affair before his wife’s cancer recurred in March.
Edwards had heatedly denied the affair after the Enquirer floated the possibility last Oct. 11.
“The story is false. It's completely untrue, ridiculous,” he said of the original report.
"I've been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years," Edwards added, “and as anybody who's been around us knows, she's an extraordinary human being, warm, loving, beautiful, sexy and as good a person as I have ever known. So the story's just false."
ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross said the Enquirer’s reporting was “95 to 96 percent” accurate.
Some former Edwards aides dismissed the affair as a mere personal dalliance, while others expressed bitter disappointment.
“I am disappointed and angry. Thousands of friends and supporters of Senator Edwards put their faith and confidence in him, and he has let them down,” former campaign manager David Bonior said in an e-mail statement. “Young supporters who put their time and energy into his campaign with a newfound energy and idealism for politics have been betrayed by his actions. But the issues we cared about and fought for — poverty, worker justice, clean environment and health care for all — are issues worth continuing to fight.”
“I’m very disappointed,” said Rob Tully, Edward’s Iowa co-chairman. He got the news while at the Iowa State Fair, where Tully had taken Edwards through years of campaigning.
“People are human, and they make mistakes. I feel bad for his family, and I feel bad for him. I’m sure this is one of those times when being human catches up with you.”
He acknowledged, however, that for “anybody looking at this, it’s going to be difficult for John in the future politically.”
Other former aides said they forgave Edwards the lie.
“He was running for president. What’s he supposed to do? Admit it?” asked a former aide.
Edwards continued this week to live with his wife in North Carolina, an associate said. A former spokeswoman for Edwards, Jennifer Palmieri, didn’t respond to a request for more information.
And some of Edwards’ closest advisers declined to speak out of concern for the feelings of Elizabeth Edwards.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a loquacious Democratic strategist who worked for Edwards in the primary, was uncharacteristically mum.
“You can say that for the first time in his life, Mudcat refused to comment,” Saunders said.
One of Edwards' rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said in Henderson, Nev., "My thoughts and prayers are with the Edwards family today, and that's all I've got to say." Aides to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, declined to comment on the revelation.
Edwards has told associates that when he endorsed Obama, he was promised a coveted prime-time, broadcast speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention.
The revelation seems to cast that into doubt, though Edwards told ABC that he hasn’t ruled out appearing at the convention, ABC’s Ross told Politico.
“I assume he won’t come to the convention, and I assume he won’t ask to speak,” said the Democratic consultant Robert Shrum, a former adviser to Edwards, who said that the public deceit — more than the infidelity, which is hardly unknown among politicians — would pose an obstacle for Edwards’ political future.
“If he’s going to have any public role at all, he’s going to have to convince people that he’s genuinely sorry — not only about what he did, but about the lying,” Shrum said.
Other political strategists felt Edwards might have a second act. Longtime Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who helped Bill Clinton defend himself after his affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky was revealed, said Edwards’ political career isn’t necessarily over.
“Obviously, unless he heals his family, he can never heal his career,” Begala said. “But supposing he does that, yes, he can come back. Divorce was once a career-ender, then Ronald Reagan changed that. No one confronts Newt Gingrich about his infidelity, nor my old boss. Maybe folks are starting to practice what they preach about letting he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Edwards had cast himself in his political career as an exemplar of a moral life and a good marriage, and he was a harsh critic of former President Bill Clinton for his Oval Office affair.
“I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter,” Edwards said in 1999. “It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen.”
Edwards' own admission also raised further questions. ABC reported that Hunter has been living “under assumed names in a series of expensive homes in North Carolina and, more recently, in Santa Barbara, California.” The network reported that Edwards denied paying for Hunter’s silence but didn’t rule out the possibility that friends or supporters had done so — though he said he did not know of that.
Michael Calderone, David Paul Kuhn and Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.