Nation & World

Commentary: Forgive me if I'm straining to believe John Edwards

Forgive me if I'm straining to believe John Edwards' version of events. My last conversation with him wasn't a good one.

In some ways, that talk reflected the difficult relationship we've had with him since he became a national political figure.

About 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11, former Sen. Edwards reached me on my office phone.

Earlier that day, while campaigning in South Carolina, Edwards denied a report in The National Enquirer that he had an affair with an unnamed woman who once worked in his campaign.

In the newsroom, we debated whether to run Edwards' comments about the Enquirer story in the next day's print edition.

The argument for: Any comment a presidential candidate makes is fair game. He had publicly responded to a published report, and that was worth noting.

The argument against: The Enquirer story was thin and apparently based on one anonymous source. It didn't even name the woman with whom he had the affair. It ran in a publication that pays people for information.

By the time Edwards called, we had decided not to publish the story in the Friday paper. But Edwards didn't know that. I wanted to hear what he had to say. We still could have reversed our decision.

Edwards told me that the allegations were not true.

He said The N&O was the paper that arrived on his doorstep every day, the one read by friends of him and his wife, Elizabeth.

He said he'd never called before to complain or state his case. Given Elizabeth's health -- she has cancer -- he said it was especially important to him that the story not run in The N&O.

He was calling from an airport, and we spoke only a few minutes.

I made no promises.

Edwards' comments were off the record. Because he has acknowledged he lied, I feel free to report them.

Regarding the affair, I neither believed nor disbelieved Edwards. Working with our colleagues from The Charlotte Observer, we quickly sent a reporter to New York, where the woman then lived, and also worked the story from here. For a fuller explanation of our coverage, see the Editor's Blog at newsobserver.com.

Regarding his warm feelings toward The N&O, I thought: Bull.

Edwards barely talked with us during his most recent campaign. He had grown too big, too national, to talk to his hometown paper.

But there was more to it than Edwards wanting a bigger platform. Edwards and his staff didn't like our reporting.

We've given a lot of coverage to Edwards' two presidential bids. Some of you objected, saying we should have given him the same level of coverage as the other candidates for president.

That's like saying that when Duke, UNC or State goes to the Final Four, we should cover them the same as the other teams.

Edwards was the strongest presidential candidate from North Carolina in the history of our nation. Whether you liked him or not, he was a big story here.

Sometimes our stories were favorable. Sometimes they weren't.

We wrote about his absences from the Senate, his big new estate, his expensive haircuts, his working for a hedge fund and his move to the left in his second run for president.

"Is he really devoted to the issues of regular people?" we wrote in a profile last December. "Is he still the millworker's son, or has he been captured by the fruits of his wealth?"

Edwards' staff objected loud and long, especially to that story, which was picked up by papers across the country. They called an Iowan in the story to see whether he had been quoted accurately. He had; we taped the interview.

Our relationship with Edwards grew so strained, Rob Christensen said, that only our long-running grudge match with the late Jesse Helms could rival it.

Christensen has covered politics for us for 35 years.

"The fundamental problem with The N&O and Edwards relationship was Edwards thought his hometown paper should be supportive of his candidacy," Christensen said. We saw our role as telling you about Edwards and his proposals, for better or worse.

When it came time to talk about his affair, Edwards was true to form. He went national and chose his friends at ABC News.

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