When John Edwards returned to North Carolina in the course of his long quest for the presidency, Andrew Young always met him at the airport in Edwards’s big black Chevy Tahoe. Young drove, and Edwards rode shotgun, silently raising his left hand whenever he wanted a Diet Coke, which Young would wordlessly supply.
When Edwards and his family arrived home, Young had made sure there was fresh milk in the fridge, a neatly trimmed lawn and neatly folded dry cleaning. When he arranged their vacation to Disney World in 2004, he naturally booked himself a ticket. And when Edwards’s mistress became pregnant, Young — at the cost of his reputation, his wife’s and his minister father’s — stepped forward to say the child was his.
Young sometimes described himself as Edwards’s “special assistant” and dreamed of serving in an Edwards White House. Other aides, with a combination of disgust — and, perhaps, a bit of envy — referred to him as Edwards’s “personal servant,” or worse, Edwards’s “butt boy.” The relationship was so intense, at least on Young’s side, that it generated friction between him and Elizabeth Edwards. But if Elizabeth and John Edwards sometimes seemed to feel that Young — at 40 no longer an eager kid, with three children of his own — had gotten too close, there was no getting rid of him. He had made himself indispensable.
“John was his idol — his hero — and probably who he considered his best friend and his mentor,” said Tim Toben, a former John Edwards supporter and friend of Young’s who now lives next door to Young on the rural west edge of Chapel Hill. “He thought that he had offered the ultimate sacrifice and was left on the curb.”
Young has fleetingly emerged from the wreckage of Edwards’s political career as a character from central casting. First he was the fall guy, and now he’s the sellout, peddling his story in a tell-all book. But the real story of Young is about the passions of politics and the classic political triangle of the candidate, his wife and the sometimes sycophantic aide. The consuming devotion that politicians command from a small handful of loyalists is familiar — and not just in presidential campaigns.
“Almost every politician has people like that around him who will do almost anything, sometimes to a fault,” said Gary Pearce, a consultant to Edwards’s 1998 Senate campaign.
Neither Elizabeth nor John Edwards responded to a request — relayed through a spokeswoman — for a comment on Young. Young also declined to comment, though he did, through a friend, pass on the names of several allies for a reporter to call. About a dozen former Edwards aides described his relationship with the Edwardses to POLITICO, most on the condition of anonymity to avoid getting dragged into the campaign’s tawdry aftermath.
Young’s friends describe him simply as a “totally devoted” believer who was “taken advantage of,” in the words of one former staffer. Those close to both Young and Edwards describe the staffer’s passion in intensely emotional terms. Starting soon after Edwards was elected to the Senate in 1998, staffers began describing Young as intensely “jealous” of others who were close to the senator.
“He believed that Edwards was the next Kennedy,” said a person who was close to Young. “It’s not enough to say that he idolized the guy — there’s something deeper and weirder than that.”
Elizabeth Edwards, in a thinly veiled portrait of Young in “Resilience,” her book on surviving cancer and her husband’s affair, compared him explicitly with Rielle Hunter, her husband’s former mistress.
“In months of talking with [John Edwards], I have come to understand his liaison with this woman, if I have, not as a substitute for me. It was more like his relationship with a former staff member,” she wrote. She described an “obsessed” and “overbearing” young volunteer who “volunteered for everything, making himself indispensable,” taking care of cars and dry cleaning — an unmistakable portrait, people close to her say, of Young.
She and her husband were, she wrote, his victims — guilty only of “being vulnerable to obsequiousness.”
Others close to both the couple and Young see it differently, as a relationship that tapped into the worst of both sides: Young’s boundless attraction to power — and the Edwardses’ ease in using him.
“What we always said about Andrew was that there would always be a place for him as long as John and Elizabeth didn’t want to get their hands dirty and deal with the painters and yard people and get their own groceries,” said a former Edwards aide who was among several who agitated more than once to have Young fired. “It was not a healthy arrangement,” the former aide said.
Elizabeth Edwards complained in her memoir and to staffers that Young had sent his wife, a nurse, to drop off McDonald’s breakfasts outside the Edwardses’ door after her night shift at the hospital.
Young appeared to some, apparently including John Edwards himself, as the perfect aide-de-camp. He was the son of a prominent Chapel Hill, N.C., family — Young’s father, Bob Young, had served for a decade as the top chaplain at Duke University. He met Edwards as a fundraising staffer for the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, which worked hard on Edwards’s 1998 campaign, according to the academy’s president, Dick Taylor. Young had graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law in 1996, according to school records, but never practiced.
Young already had some campaign experience — he’d volunteered for the 1996 reelection campaign of Gov. Jim Hunt. But Hunt staffers say they felt a certain “unease” about him and deliberately kept him away from Hunt.
But Young threw himself into Edwards’s Senate race with a passion, becoming Edwards’s driver and gofer. After Edwards defeated Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth, however, he was bitterly disappointed to be denied a job in Washington, friends said. Instead he accepted a job on Edwards’s North Carolina staff, securing his role with the family by always being the one to meet Edwards at the airport and taking care of the family home when everyone was away. And when an animal or trespasser triggered the home alarm system, another former aide said, it rang on Young’s cell phone.
Edwards didn’t exactly reciprocate Young’s passion, but he also didn’t show any signs of unease, according to former staffers. Young had made himself useful, and the ambitious senator seemed to enjoy having a drink or a conversation about sports with him.
Finally, as Edwards began to consider a run for president, a job opened up in Washington, and Young moved north to become the scheduler on his Senate staff. Other aides, though, complained that he controlled access too jealously and made the presidential hopeful inaccessible to potential backers.
“John and Elizabeth agreed that he had gotten too close to them and too far into their personal lives,” a family friend recalled.
Young was sent back to North Carolina, and he served as director of operations for Edwards’s 2004 presidential bid, setting up offices across the country and keeping the trains running on time — a job that, even his detractors say, he did well.
After the campaign, Young decided to move his family from Raleigh to Chapel Hill to be closer to Edwards. He first sought to purchase a plot on Edwards’s new estate, a plan Elizabeth Edwards vetoed. Instead, he bought the sprawling tract nearby from Toben, the former Edwards supporter.
In 2006, John Edwards met Hunter and began the affair that would destroy his career. Young, according to a person who has seen his book proposal, claims to have taken on one more role: facilitating his boss’s affair. “When there was a secure phone needed, Andrew would handle the phone,” said another Edwards aide.
As worries about a possible affair coursed through Edwards’s organization toward the end of 2006, just as Edwards was getting ready to announce a second run for the presidency, Young appears to have been in a position to demand a good campaign job. Though someone had already been hired to run Edwards’s North Carolina fundraising operation, and had moved to Chapel Hill to do it, Young asked for the job. The other staffer was shunted aside.
Soon afterward, however, Young gave Elizabeth Edwards and his other internal enemies a cudgel.
In November, he called Walmart on John Edwards’s behalf, seeking to get an in-demand Sony PlayStation3 for the Edwards family, a move that drew allegations of hypocrisy when it became public. The next month, Edwards confessed to his wife that he’d had an affair with Hunter, and she appears to have suspected Young’s role facilitating it. By February 2007, staffers recalled, Young was banned from their house and complaining to colleagues about Elizabeth Edwards.
In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, as rumors circulated about Edwards’s affair with the pregnant Hunter, a lawyer representing Young released a statement.
“As confirmed by Ms. Hunter, Andrew Young is the father of her unborn child,” according to the statement. “Sen. Edwards knew nothing about the relationship between these former co-workers, which began when they worked together in 2006.”
People who knew the senator and the staffer instantly doubted the story.
“It was falling on his sword — and that would have been expected by most of Andrew’s friends that he would do so on behalf of John,” said David Badger, a lawyer and friend of Young’s. “Which is why I would suspect most of us figured that the acknowledgement of paternity was not anything that we could rely upon.”
Young later told friends he thought the disgrace would be temporary.
“He was glad to do it,” said a friend, Bill Walser, whom Young met during the campaign. “The deal as I understood it later was that after the election results were final, that John would step up and straighten out the issue. That didn’t happen.”
Instead, Young’s acknowledgement triggered a strange odyssey, chronicled in the National Enquirer, that brought Hunter to live with Young’s family and then sent them all packing to the West Coast (to be near Hunter’s spiritual adviser, named Bob) and back, all on the dime of a top Edwards supporter, the late Fred Baron. A grand jury is now examining whether the payments violated campaign finance law.
Defeated in Iowa and then New Hampshire, Edwards ended his presidential campaign in January 2008. But Edwards continued to hope for a Cabinet position or even a second chance as the vice presidential nominee. Hunter’s child was born the next month, and at the same time, Edwards froze Young out, according to someone familiar with the relationship.
“He doesn’t accept Young’s calls, he doesn’t return his messages, and fully for a three-month period — for reasons Andrew never discerned — Edwards won’t be in any contact with him at all,” recalled the person.
Edwards endorsed Barack Obama on May 14 and began talking to his former aide again soon after that. But the relationship had grown tense. Young was under the impression that Edwards would, after dropping out, step forward and claim paternity — which he showed no inclination of doing.
Elizabeth Edwards, meanwhile, had been leaving messages on Young’s and Young’s wife’s voice mail, two sources say Young told them, demanding that he reassert his paternity to clear the cloud over her husband. The Youngs returned to Chapel Hill, and they heard that Elizabeth Edwards had been spreading the rumor that, among other things, Young had stolen her late son Wade’s baseball card collection, which he denied. The (New York) Daily News reported that she had been attacking Young’s character in pseudonymous blog comments.
Still, Young kept his public silence through the election season, and well after John Edwards’s hopes for a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention or an administration post had ended. In August 2008, Edwards admitted the affair with Hunter but denied being the father of her child. In recent months, according to former aides, he has come under increasing pressure to acknowledge paternity.
Young’s friends say he decided to write a book only after he decided that the Edwards would never set the record straight and after he read Elizabeth Edwards’s description of him as a “pathetic,” grasping male mirror image of Hunter.
“They look at our lives, which from the outside, in particular, are pictures of joy and plenty, and they want it for themselves,” she wrote of Hunter and Young in “Resilience.”
“I think he wouldn’t have [decided to write his book] unless he felt just absolutely heartbroken and betrayed, which is the sentiment I get from him when I talk to him,” said Young’s friend Toben. “It took a lot, and probably Elizabeth’s book was the final stimulus for that decision.”
Others close to Young say, however, that the notion of writing a book had less high-minded roots. Baron, whose money had been taking care of the Youngs, died in the fall of 2008, and his wife indicated to them that she wouldn’t be keeping up the payments.
“What compelled them to do the book is the spigot got turned off,” said one person close to the situation.
Young still lives in Chapel Hill, not far from the Edwardses. Having found it impossible to work again in politics, he spends his days playing with his children and working on the manuscript of his book for St. Martin’s Press — the leaked proposal promises lurid revelations of promises made to Hunter by John Edwards and of other Edwards affairs, details that many in Edwards’s circle still doubt.
And Young, with all the fury of a spurned lover, may be holding out yet another threat to his old idol, if it comes to that: an explicit videotape, two people who have seen it said, of Edwards and Hunter together.
“It’s his hole card,” said the source.
Young’s friends said they had no knowledge of the tape, which is reportedly described in his book proposal. But Young has not, to date, sold it. And another person close to Young described his motives in, reluctantly, writing the book:
“The question I would ask everybody is ‘What the hell alternative do I have’?” the person quoted Young saying. “Are you just supposed to be kicked mercilessly and never say anything yourself?”