Rielle Hunter and the Techniques of Political Seduction

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With a new book alleging John Edwards had multiple affairs, his famous mistress lengthens the already long odds of a political redemption.

edwards buttonAn actual button being sold by Democrats during the 2004 presidential campaign, produced by a union shop and everything. (Garance Franke-Ruta, personal collection)

It's no accident that in politics we talk of candidates wooing voters or courting the electorate, and joke that some are ones to date and others to marry. The language of politics and the language of romantic love have been intertwined since the emergence of early modern English literature, in part because the Renaissance flowering of such coincided with the rule of a female queen in England, and was a product of her court. But the relationship between the language of romantic courtship and of political courtiers, the wooing of women and the wooing of the politically powerful, goes back even further and speaks to something fundamental in our understanding of what it means to seduce and to create allegiances and passion.

Which is why it's so striking in all the tales of politicians philandering there's so little actual seduction involved. So John Edwards's mistress Rielle Hunter will say in her book What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter and Me, to be released next week, reiterating tales she's told for years and newly revealing that she was not Edwards's only one. He'd had two affairs before, she writes.

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To which one might reply, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer would say, "Does the word 'duh' mean anything to you?"

All you need to know about a man is how he has strayed to know whether he is a player or a fool for love. As I wrote after the Anthony Weiner scandal, where the story of a single graphic mistweet rapidly morphed into the story of sexting with multiple women, the iron law of political sex scandals is that there is no such thing as two. Either someone strays once -- think of former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's teary confession that he'd "developed a relationship" with a "dear friend" -- or does so over and over as part of a pattern of behavior. And you can usually tell from the description of the affair or straying in question which of the two scenarios you're looking at.

According to a copy of the book obtained by ABC News, Hunter says she met Edwards in February 2006 and told him, "You're so hot." He then called to invite her back to his hotel room at the New York Regency Hotel. And that was that. This kind of behavior comes across pretty plainly as the actions of a man who was not nervous at all about what he was doing and also not afraid of rejection or being exposed. The most logical explanation for his demeanor and approach of course is the one she now says was the case -- that he'd been down that road before. In short, it was never probable that Hunter was the only other woman in Edwards' marriage, based solely on the evidence of his actions, and the manner in which their affair began.

The apparently frankness of Hunter's forthcoming book -- which she will discuss in an interview airing on ABC News Friday -- will likely close off the only avenue for redemption Edwards might have had. As Chris Cillizza has pointed out, the usual path to political redemption for straying politicians begins with forgiveness by the person closest to him -- his wife. That's not an option in Edwards's case.

Unlike Spitzer and Vitter, whose spouses stood by them and pledged to make it work, Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, passed away in December 2010. There was no forgiveness. And there will be no chance for it.

Unlike Vitter or Spitzer, who can hope for future stories about how they weathered a very rocky time in their relationship, Edwards will forever be burdened by the fact that he cheated on his terminally ill wife.

In the eyes of the American public, that makes any chance to forgive and forget about what Edwards has done next to impossible. For Edwards to have any reasonable hope about reemerging as a public (or political) figure, there would need to be a parallel storyline about how his wife was prospering and enjoying her life. And that's not possible.

The only conceivable exception to this rule is the marriage exception as demonstrated by Prince Charles, who managed to restore his reputation after the death of Lady Diana by sticking with his long-time paramour Camilla Parker-Bowles and eventually marrying her. It's hard to imagine Edwards and Hunter developing a real relationship and marrying at this point, though she's apparently also vague in the book about the nature of her current relationship to Edwards.

Still, "he has a long history of lying about one thing only -- women -- and I mistakenly thought I was different," Hunter writes. That doesn't sound like the basis for a strong alliance, whether political or romantic, going forward.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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