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Originally published January 11, 2010 at 8:19 PM | Page modified January 12, 2010 at 8:51 AM

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Book skewers John Edwards and wife

Much of the attention on the new book "Game Change" has come from its revelations about Sarah Palin, the Clintons and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But some of the most riveting portions deal with the former senator from North Carolina.

McClatchy Newspapers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A new book paints stinging portraits of Democrat John Edwards as an "ego monster," his mistress as an eccentric flirt and his wife Elizabeth as a fiery presence whose private behavior was often at odds with her public image.

The depictions come from "Game Change," an insiders' look at the 2008 presidential campaign by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Much of the attention on the book has come from its revelations about Sarah Palin, the Clintons and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But some of the most riveting portions deal with Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina.

Those are excerpted in a New York magazine cover story headlined, "The shocking, untold, you-can't-make-this-up story of the fall of John Edwards."

"It's an ugly tale. It does not reflect well on them at all," Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist from Raleigh, N.C., who worked on Edwards' 1998 Senate campaign, told McClatchy Newspapers Monday.

The book is the first of two books bound to further tarnish Edwards.

"The Politician," by former aide Andrew Young, will claim that Edwards, not Young, fathered the child of Edwards' mistress. It's scheduled for publication in three weeks.

"Game Change" is based on more than 200 off-the-record interviews with key players in the 2008 campaign. It describes the backstage drama as Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter became a sore point in his campaign, straining relationships with aides as well as his wife.

Aides had begun seeing a change in Edwards years earlier, after he made Al Gore's short list of vice presidential candidates in 2000.

"Many of his friends started noticing a change — the arrival of what one of his aides referred to as "the ego monster," Heilemann and Halperin write.

They say the change grew more pronounced in 2004, when he first ran for president and later became Democratic nominee for vice president. Once considerate of staffers, they write, he became disdainful and demanding.

"You can't talk to people that way," pollster Harrison Hickman told him once, according to the book. Hickman could not be reached Monday.

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In a TV interview in August 2008, Edwards acknowledged the transformation.

"In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic," he said at the time.

It was between campaigns, in February 2006, the authors write, that aide Josh Brumberger and Edwards were in the bar at New York's Regency Hotel when a woman walked over to their table.

"My friends insist you're John Edwards," said Rielle Hunter. "I tell them no way — you're way too handsome."

"No, ma'am. I'm John Edwards," he replied.

"No way!" she said, "I don't believe you!"

Hunter went to work for Edwards, shooting campaign videos and traveling with him. She was a constant if unorthodox presence.

"She spouted New Age babble, rambled on about astrology and reincarnation, and announced to people she had just met, 'I'm a witch,' " the authors write. "But mostly, she fixated on Edwards. She told him that he had 'the power to change the world,' that 'the people will follow you.' She told him that he could be as great a leader as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr."

According to the book, the relationship provoked denials and even confrontations between Edwards and aides, and eventually between the candidate and his wife.

Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer at the close of the 2004 election. By spring 2007, a few weeks after she said her husband told her about his affair, doctors declared it incurable.

Like much of America, the book says, aides felt sympathy and respect for her.

"And yet the romance between her and the electorate struck them as ironic nonetheless — because their own relationships with her were so unpleasant that they felt like battered spouses," the authors write.

"The nearly universal assessment among them was that there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing."

Heilemann and Halperin say that with her husband, Elizabeth Edwards could be "intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive."

In the fall of 2007, as the National Enquirer was about to publish its first account of Edwards' affair, the two arrived at the airport in Raleigh.

"They fought outside in the parking lot," the book says. "Elizabeth was sobbing, out of control, incoherent. As their aides tried to avert their eyes, she tore off her blouse, exposing herself. 'Look at me!' she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground."

Edwards persisted in the 2008 race. After finishing second in the Iowa caucuses, the authors write, he sought to cut a deal with the winner, Barack Obama, to be his running mate. On the eve of the S.C. primary, he offered to endorse Obama for a promise to be named attorney general.

After more revelations by the Enquirer in August, he confessed to the affair on national TV, even while insisting he was not the father of Hunter's child.

"In some ways the worst thing that ever happened to John Edwards was being considered for vice president in 2000," Pearce says. "I think he went too far too fast."

CAMPAIGN TALES:

"Game Change," by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, is based on more than 200 interviews. Portions published in New York magazine detail stories from John Edwards' 2008 campaign. Here are excerpts.

"(In 2004) Edwards reveled in being inside the bubble: the Secret Service, the chartered jet, the press pack, the swarm of factotums catering to his every whim. And the crowds! The ovations! The adoration! He ate it up. In the old days, when his aides asked how a rally had gone, he would roll his eyes and self-mockingly say, 'Oh, they love me.' Now he would bound down from the stage beaming and exclaim, without the slightest shred of irony, 'They looooove me!' "

"(Staffers) continued slaving in the service of the illusion at the core of Edwards's political appeal: that he remained the same humble, aw-shucks son of a mill worker he'd always been. The cognitive dissonance was enormous, sure, but they were used to that. Because for years they'd been living with an even bigger lie — the lie of Saint Elizabeth ...

"The nearly universal assessment among them was that there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing."

"With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive. At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know that she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. She called her spouse a 'hick' in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks. One time, when a friend asked if John had read a certain book, Elizabeth burst out laughing. 'Oh, he doesn't read books,' she said. 'I'm the one who reads books.' "

"(After the first National Enquirer story) John and Elizabeth were scheduled to fly out of Raleigh to separate destinations. ... But when the traveling staff arrived at their home, they found Elizabeth out of sorts, disconsolate, still in her bathrobe. She had drafted a blog post she wanted published, defending her husband from the accusations against him. This kind of tawdriness was something the Clintons would be involved in, she wrote, but not the Edwardses. The staff persuaded Elizabeth that posting the item would do more harm than good."

"After pulling herself together, she and John set off for the private aviation terminal at the airport — but partway there, their car pulled over, and John hopped out and jumped into the staff car, saying in an exasperated tone, 'I can't ride with her.'

"At the terminal, the couple fought in the passenger waiting area. They fought outside in the parking lot. Elizabeth was sobbing, out of control, incoherent. As their aides tried to avert their eyes, she tore off her blouse, exposing herself. 'Look at me!' she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground."

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