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The Charlotte Letter: Rielle Reconsidered

It seemed odd to leave Charlotte without saying hello to the one person I sorta know here. Even odder to contemplate how much different this convention, not to mention election, might have been if one former presidential and vice-presidential candidate hadn’t met her five years ago.

Rielle Hunter picks me up the afternoon of Bill Clinton’s speech in her mini SUV, wearing cute capri pants (size 0), a button-down shirt and funky eyeglasses that her four-year old Quinn picked out for her, and we head out for cocktails. The Ritz? I suggest. “Are you kidding me?” she says, laughing. We are not going anywhere near convention central. She would “prefer to avoid the crowds.”

She pulls up to a Mexican cantina, in a (relatively) hip neighborhood out on the edge of Charlotte. We slip into a booth. The place is empty, the waitresses unfazed. It’s how she likes it.

She orders a red wine, sits back in the booth, looks me in the eye and grins. Widely. She looks happy.

“I knew it,” I say.

“Knew what?”

The twitter-sphere is rife with rumors that she and John Edwards are very much together again after the big breakup that occurred this summer upon the release of her book, What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter and Me. (It was, in fact, the first time they’d ever really broken up since that fateful night in February 2006 at the Regency Hotel.) But recently, there’ve been sightings of the two, frolicking around, and not just in a co-parenting sort of way. “I’m thinking maybe this breakup didn’t last too long,” I tell her.

“I don’t want to talk about our relationship,” she says, sweetly but firmly. “Everything’s really great in my life right now, and I’ve never been happier.”

Is it safe to say you are more than co-parents?

I dont want to talk about our relationship! Her voice is raised but she’s still smiling.

So there is a relationship?

“I’ve never been happier, but I don’t want to talk about our relationship.”

The girl’s tough. And not stupid.

“Well, if you are back together, I'm happy for you,” I say, because I am.

“Let’s get some quesadillas,” she says.

FOR THE PAST four years, Rielle Hunter has lived with her daughter in a modest, cozy home in Charlotte, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from John in Chapel Hill. He sees Quinn regularly. “Johnny is a great dad,” says Rielle. “He’s completely nurturing, present, he cooks for her—I am not a great cook. He’s very much like a mom. I guess that’s the highest compliment you could give a dad.”

 Though Rielle's an LA girl at heart, she says she loves it here in Charlotte. Quinn enjoys school (she’s in pre-K) and has made lots of friends. And Mommy? “How do people treat you?” I ask. “Great!” she replies. Really? “Really. The media is not the real world, Lisa.”

 Still, there were some pretty ick moments along the way—like the time she excitedly took Quinn to her first Mommy and Me class and one of the other mommies (“and she was so nice to me!”) sold pictures and a “story” to The National Enquirer. But she’s learned to let things like that slide. “Forgiveness, it’s the key to life,” says Rielle. “I forgive. People are people. I don’t hold on to stuff.”

She worries, however, that Quinn won’t be raised “with a good sense of perspective. She’s a privileged little girl, and I never want her to lose sight of how not everybody in the world has what she has.” The other day, she says, she and her daughter went online and picked out a little girl named Tinika to sponsor through “She wanted to pick her out, it was so cute,” says Rielle. “And afterwards, she said to me, ‘You know, Mommy, all the kids in my class have money, I think they should sponsor kids too.’ So we’re going to have a party with all her little friends to do this!” And will the parents come? To Rielle Hunter’s home for a Save the Children party? “Why not?”

I ask her if it’s at all weird to have the Democratic convention practically in her backyard, given her role in the last presidential election. “Not at all!” she says. “Except for the traffic. I never considered myself ‘part of the election.’” Surely Johnny must be a little blue this week. “Not remotely!” she says. “I’ve said this before: My perspective back then was that politics wasn’t his thing. When he talked about law, he’d always light up. When he talked about politics, not so much.”

THE LAST TIME I had caught up with Rielle, it was at the end of her excruciating (to watch) media tour, a time during which it was easy to forget that the United States is not one of the countries where women are stoned for adultery. And she wasn’t even the adulterer. She was, however, the mistress who depicted the beloved Elizabeth Edwards as a woman unhinged throughout the affair. “It was the truth,” says Rielle. “But I wish I’d said a few things differently.

Her book blitz launched with an exclusive interview by ABC’s Chris Cuomo (“Chris has so much integrity,” says Rielle). But by then the excerpts about Elizabeth had already leaked. Oddly, ABC stepped on its own exclusive by putting the parts of the book online, in an attempt to beat the AP, which had obtained a copy of the book. “It’s all a game,” says Rielle. But, by the time the Cuomo interview aired, she and Edwards were broken up (“I didn’t have much time to wallow in emotional pity, I was busy”), and the media narrative was set: Rielle thought Elizabeth was a “witch on wheels.” (She does use the phrase, but in a more general context: “Incidentally, passive aggressive men are usually married to a witch on wheels.”) She was eviscerated from studio to studio—from The View to Piers Morgan and everywhere in between. Soledad O’Brien looked as if she was going to strangle her. “I liked Piers,” says Rielle. “And I love Barbara [Walters].” And Soledad? “God bless Soledad, but I think she needs therapy.”

After the media blitz, she chose not to do the usual book signings across the country—“I was done, I said my piece, I just wanted it over”—and reports followed that the book was a bomb. It was reported in July that she sold just 6,000 copies, despite making the New York Times best-seller list, which seemed odd. “I guess people aren’t buying books,” Rielle told me at the time. In Charlotte I asked if she knew how many books she sold, or if she made back her paltry $12,000 advance. “I have no idea. But I did ok with [my fee for] the People excerpt.” Glenn Yeffeth, her publisher at BenBella books, said last week that sales to date were over 25,000, including e-books (BenBella shipped over 80,000).

Rielle has her own theories of why she brings out such venom in people, even beyond the Elizabeth stuff. “I hit a nerve,” she says, “on a primal security level in women, especially when their security is all wrapped up in a man.” It’s true that married women in particular seem to have a visceral response to the Size 0 blonde Hunter. But not every mistress—or even every mistress who writes a book—elicits such loathing. She’s considered this, too. “I think it’s because people think that I haven’t suffered any negative consequences, and it’s their job to punish me.” She did, after all, get the guy, and, regardless of the current mysterious (or maybe not so mysterious) state of affairs, Rielle was never a pathetic mistress. She never acted victim-y. In the years that I’ve known her, I’ve never sensed a scintilla of insecurity. This is not the usual mistress script.

I’m curious about another aspect of their relationship. “Regardless of what your relationship is now,” I ask her, “do you always feel from him that he sees you as intelligent and beautiful?”

“Oh, God, yes,” she replies without hesitation. “And then the media spins it that I’m delusional.”

There’s another thing I’ve always been curious about. When Rielle fell in love with John Edwards, he was powerful, admired, he was running for president. Of course the affair was exciting. But didn’t it get a little less exciting when he was suddenly powerless and despised (not to mention almost in jail)? “That is not our case,” she replies. “I don’t want to talk about our relationship, but that was never our case. I think I said this to you before: If John Edwards were working in a gas station and I met him, that would be my guy.”

He might be, I joke.

“Who knows?” she says. “Anything is possible.”

And could you deal with that?

“I can deal with anything. God willing.”