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The dark art of the National Enquirer.

On the morning of February 21, David Perel, the editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer, was sitting in his Boca Raton office when he pulled up The New York Times website. Scanning the screen, he was surprised by one particularly opaque headline--for mccain, self-confidence on ethics poses its own risk--that topped the Times' now infamous front-page investigation suggesting John McCain had carried on an affair with telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman while he ran the Senate Commerce Committee during the 1990s.

Normally, in the pitched tabloid battle for exclusives, losing a competitive bombshell like the McCain scandal would send Perel into fits. Not this time. Five Enquirer reporters had spent more than a month in 2007 chasing down the same rumors but failed to uncover any documentary evidence. "I wouldn't have run that piece, there was nothing in it," Perel told me recently about the Times story, which received widespread criticism when it ran. "It was filled with innuendo. ... When you're done reading it, you're like, there's no there there."

These days, you can't fault Perel for feeling smug. Just two weeks ago, John Edwards confirmed to Bob Woodruff of ABC News much of what the Enquirer had been reporting for 18 months: that he had cheated on his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth with 44-year-old Rielle Hunter, who was paid $114,000 by Edwards's One America PAC for producing a series of "Webisodes" along the campaign trail. The paper had printed photos of a pregnant Hunter and named her as the mother of Edwards's love child. (Edwards denied fathering the baby.)

The National Enquirer, with its checkbook journalism and its focus on the salacious and the untoward, is hardly grist for journalism school classes. It has also gotten some stories spectacularly wrong, on August 1 settling a lawsuit for an undisclosed sum after it incorrectly reported in 2006 that Ted Kennedy had fathered a love child of his own. But the paper also has a remarkable record in driving the mainstream media's coverage of political figures, from Gary Hart and Donna Rice to Jesse Jackson's love child to the current Edwards gotcha, the product of a scrappiness and enterprise that even the Times should envy.

In September 2007, Rick Egusquiza, a bartender turned Hollywood reporter who joined the Enquirer in 2000, was sitting at his desk in the paper's Los Angeles bureau when he answered the tip line. ("I'm a nice guy, so people tell me things," Egusquiza says.) The anonymous source told him that Edwards was having an affair with Hunter. "I was like, 'Whoa, this is great,'" he recalled. "Not like this is great, but you know, like this is something I want to check out." The piece was assigned the next day, and Barry Levine, the Enquirer's executive editor based in New York, directed the coverage that grew to include nearly a dozen reporters. "We saw some of the videos. It was clear back then, the flirtation was going on. Edwards was like a blushing kid to her," Egusquiza says.

After a month on the story, the Enquirer obtained e-mails from Hunter disclosing the affair. The first article was published on October 10, 2007, but it did not name Hunter. "We knew her name, but we withheld it," Perel says. "We were being conservative; sometimes we err on the side of caution."

In late November 2007, Perel and Levine dispatched to North Carolina a "ghost team," reporters whose job it is to watch but not to be seen. The reporters discovered that Hunter was living in a gated community and having dinner with Andrew Young, the campaign aide who later said he was the father of Hunter's child, and his wife. They wanted a photo, and they wanted comments from both Hunter and Young. "You know, you have sources telling you she's six months pregnant, but let's see it!" Perel says. "We decided to shift into 'go- mode.'"

For two weeks, a team of four reporters--including Alan Smith, who broke the Donna Rice scandal--staked out Hunter's ob/gyn office until she was spotted and snapped outside a nearby grocery store on December 12. "The picture you see where she looks like Camilla Parker Bowles took fifteen days," reporter Alan Butterfield, who was at the scene, remembers. "We sat in our car."

Before publishing the photograph on December 19, the Enquirer pressed Edwards to confirm the story, Perel says. Edwards's attorney offered to provide a sworn affidavit that his client hadn't fathered Hunter's child, but, according to two former Edwards staffers, Edwards never signed one. Perel says the paper also offered Edwards the chance to take a polygraph test; if he passed, Perel would kill the story. Edwards declined the offer.

Hunter's baby was born on February 27. Perel's reporters kept working the story. Four days before encountering Edwards at the Beverly Hilton on July 22, they learned he would be meeting Hunter at the hotel, and, on July 21, a team of seven Enquirer reporters reserved several rooms and set up camp. That day, Edwards arrived in California for an anti-poverty event. Sources told the reporters he would see Hunter during the visit, but they didn't know when. "We were up for thirty-six hours," says senior reporter Alexander Hitchen, a veteran of Fleet Street and son of Brian Hitchen, the former editor of the British Sunday Express tabloid.

Around 9:40 p.m. on July 21, Hitchen saw Hunter's friend Bob McGovern pull up to the hotel in a navy blue BMW 740 sedan and take the elevator up to Hunter's room. Hitchen and Butterfield knew Edwards would likely use a less visible entrance and stationed themselves in the lobby for the five-hour stakeout. Shortly after 2 a.m, Hitchen saw McGovern return to the lobby. Expecting Edwards to take the elevator to the basement where he could escape through a rear stairwell, the reporter positioned himself at the bottom of the stairs.

Edwards popped out of the elevator and started up the stairs. Then Hitchen pounced. "Mr. Edwards, Alexander Hitchen, from the National Enquirer. Would you like to say why you were at the hotel this evening to see your mistress Rielle Hunter and your love child?" he asked. Edwards froze and "turned pale," Hitchen remembers. Edwards made a move for the top of the stairs but Butterfield, standing with a photographer, was blocking the exit. "He ducked, tucked, and ran," Butterfield says. The Enquirer reporters ran after him, Hitchen asking questions all the while. "Do you think for the sake of your child, you should admit paternity?" he said.

Edwards said nothing.

Edwards darted into a bathroom and pulled the door shut. Hitchen and Butterfield stood in the corridor, trying to pry it back open. Edwards "was trying to pull the door, and occasionally I'd see his face, and you'd see the stress on his face and his hair tussling around," Butterfield told me. A group of security guards came over. Hitchen explained the situation and handed his card to a guard who went into the bathroom. Soon, the guards shielded Edwards's head with a jacket and escorted him up the stairs and out of the hotel.

Hitchen and Butterfield stayed up for five more hours, hoping to encounter Hunter; but, after she failed to appear, the reporters filed their piece, which was posted online, and went to sleep.

In the days since the Enquirer broke the Edwards affair, the mainstream media has debated the probity of the tabloid's reporting, criticizing the paper for paying sources and for its seamy tactics, like staging stakeouts or digging through its subjects' garbage. "[T]abloids pay. And they pay big," former New York Times Hollywood reporter Sharon Waxman wrote critically on her blog on August 13. "I'd guess that Hunter sold the photo from an earlier meeting at the Beverly Hilton to the National Enquirer."

Perel laughed when I asked him about Waxman's theory. "Tell Sharon Waxman I wish Rielle was a source, because I would have nailed this story a long time ago. I would have been putting a sex tape on the Internet by now!" he said. He also says there's nothing corrupting about the way the paper pays for sources; it only pays out if the information is found to be true. "We pay for accurate information," Perel says. "We do it the way cops pay tipsters and informants."

And, with these sorts of stories, they go for the hard proof. Iain Calder, the Enquirer's former editor-in-chief, estimates that the paper settled about a dozen cases during his 20-year tenure, which may not be as many as you'd expect given the paper's reputation, and the last time they lost a libel lawsuit was more than 30 years ago. (The Enquirer, in 1976, incorrectly reported that Carol Burnett had a fight with Henry Kissinger at a Washington, D.C., restaurant; Burnett said the Enquirer implied she was drunk.) "The Enquirer really tries to get it right," says David Kendall, an attorney who for 20 years served as the Enquirer's legal counsel and who famously defended Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "It's subject to the same libel laws everybody else is. "

Edwards allies, of course, are not so sure. "It would be a terrible side- effect of this whole situation," says Jonathan Prince, Edwards's former deputy campaign manager, "if people would see it as an endorsement of the National Enquirer's tactics or credibility." Perel sees vindication in the mainstream media's late arrival to the Edwards story. "The two papers who look ridiculous are The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, that banned people from blogging about it" before Edwards admitted to the affair, he says. But the mainstream media knows that presidential candidates are fair game for celebrity tabloids. And the Enquirer will be trying to drive some of that coverage in the months ahead. The Enquirer's reporters are already out there, digging, hustling, and working their sources. "We are definitely looking into Obama. We hear a lot of tips. I can't tell you how many things we hear all the time," Perel says. And, while the Enquirer has remained silent on the McCain-Iseman connection, Perel hasn't killed the story for good. "Let's just put it this way, I don't think it's dead," he says. "It doesn't mean it's right, but I don't think it's dead.