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05.20.09

The Mystery Man of the Edwards Affair

As Elizabeth Edwards talks (and talks) about her husband’s affair, The Daily Beast’s Bryan Curtis provides an exclusive look at one central character who remains a cipher.

As Elizabeth Edwards talks (and talks) about her husband’s affair, The Daily Beast provides an exclusive look at one central character who remains a cipher: “Uncle Fred” Baron, the lawyer who paid for Edwards’ mistress to move across the country.

As Elizabeth Edwards continues to share and overshare about her marriage and her husband’s affair (this week’s stop: The View), one key aspect of the story remains untold. Why in the world did two friends of the senator go to such extraordinary lengths to help hide his affair?

The two ciphers in the saga are Andrew Young, an aide who has claimed to be the father of Rielle Hunter’s daughter, and Fred Baron, a legendary Texas trial lawyer and Democratic financier. It was Baron who rushed to Edwards’ rescue as the presidential primaries were approaching and the tabloid reporters closing in, and paid to relocate Young and Hunter to California. When Baron then died in October 2008 after a battle with cancer, it seemed all the stranger that a man of his reputation, in his final days, would get so deeply involved in a mess like this.

“Fred was kind of a doting father,” says one Edwards staffer. “He was incredibly dedicated to John, extremely loyal, probably spoiled him a little too much, maybe an enabler in some ways.”

But in conversations with Baron’s friends and Edwards campaign staffers, a fuller picture of Baron emerges. He was more than Edwards’ money man; he was deeply integrated into Edwards’ life. In the campaign office, he was known as “Uncle Fred.” To understand their close friendship is to understand a bit more about the Edwards scandal and why, it turned out, Baron would protect Edwards at any cost.

In a campaign of true believers, Baron, who was 61, had a greater stake in John Edwards than most. “Fred was kind of a doting father,” says one Edwards staffer. “He was incredibly dedicated to John, extremely loyal, probably spoiled him a little too much, maybe an enabler in some ways.” Baron was chairman of Edwards’ 2008 campaign-finance committee (a title he also held in 2004), but for the candidate he was an irreplaceable sounding board. He was “as close a professional colleague as you get in this business,” says Kelly Fero, Edwards’ Texas spokesman in 2004.

Baron’s affection for Edwards was political but it was also professional. Both men styled themselves as trial lawyers in the classic Southern tradition. They were fighting for regular guys against the big, powerful interests—the “Atticus Finch model,” in the words of the Edwards staffer. Edwards’ campaign spiel of “two Americas,” of an underclass fighting for economic and social justice, was right out of the Baron playbook.

Around the campaign’s Chapel Hill headquarters, Baron was a smiling, benevolent figure. He had moved to North Carolina for the campaign, and he arrived at the office each day looking as if he’d just emerged from a Brooks Brothers catalog. (The joke was that he was more carefully coiffed than even the carefully coiffed candidate.) Baron had a trial lawyer’s gift for being intense without a breaking a sweat, and, in his Texas drawl, he was the campaign’s house optimist. Even as Team Edwards stumbled irreversibly in the primaries, Baron was quick with a pep talk. Whenever a staffer needed help, Baron, in a foreshadowing of later events, was the first to volunteer.

“He was a type of guy that, if a person falls, Fred expects someone to pick him up in a hurry,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, an Edwards adviser.

Back home in Texas, Baron wasn’t shy about throwing money around. After graduating from law school in 1971, Baron became a feared plaintiff’s attorney working in toxic tort litigation. By 2001, Baron and his wife, a fellow lawyer named Lisa Blue, built a fortune that Forbes put at $21 million. Baron was a Democratic politician’s dream—an idealist with a checkbook. “He just believed in electing the right kind of people to public office,” says Martin Frost, a former Dallas-area congressman, who was Baron’s friend for decades. “And had the financial wherewithal to make that happen.” In 2000, the Barons moved into a 22,000-square-foot home in Dallas’s Preston Hollow neighborhood—the same neighborhood that now counts George W. and Laura Bush as residents. The home was much larger than the Barons needed, and the ostensible purpose, said a friend, was to make it ground zero for every Democratic political fundraiser, charitable gala, and friend’s wedding they could squeeze in. Baron was even known to grant use of the home when he was out of town.

That Baron would leap to his friend’s defense in a time of personal crisis surprised no one. The first reports of Edwards’ affair appeared in the National Enquirer in October 2007. Baron claimed he wouldn’t learn of the affair for another eight months, but the Barons were already indirectly involved. In April 2007, Edwards’ political action committee made a final $14,000 payment to Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, for her video work. The funds the committee took in during that quarter included a $3,000 check from Baron’s wife, Lisa.

Near the end of 2007—as allegations were piling up in The Enquirer but being carefully avoided by the national media—Baron made a bid to save his friend’s career. He paid to move Hunter, Andrew Young, and Young’s wife and kids to a home in Santa Barbara, California. (“It was just a horrible, horrible situation,” Baron told Texas Lawyer magazine. “I paid for them to relocate to another home in another state.”) The Enquirer alleged that he was also giving Young and Hunter about $15,000 and $20,000 per month, respectively. In August 2008, after Edwards had confessed the affair in a Nightline interview, Baron told The New York Times that he might have even had a hand in referring lawyers to Young and Hunter—lawyers who issued statements the previous year claiming that the child did not belong to Edwards. A U.S. attorney is investigating whether campaign funds were used improperly.

All told, it was an incredible effort to save a campaign that—even before the scandal crested—was over by January 30, 2008. “It breaks my heart if this is going to disqualify him from being a public servant, because he would be a great one,” Baron said at the time.

Whereas Baron saw Edwards as a peer, Andrew Young saw him as a source of employment. Young began as a junior staffer with Edwards’ 1998 Senate campaign and parlayed their relationship into several jobs with Edwards and Edwards-affiliated organizations, including the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina. Around the time Edwards was confessing, Young was building a 5,300-square-foot home back in Chapel Hill even though, as Raleigh’s News & Observer noted, “it is not clear whether he is working.” A second former Edwards staffer says that buzz around the campaign is that he and his family left California without Hunter as early as last summer.

By that time, the humiliation of Edwards, Young, and Hunter was the least of Fred Baron’s problems. He was gravely ill with multiple myeloma and was spending time at the Mayo Clinic. But those friends Baron spoke to during his illness found the same relentlessly optimistic warrior they knew from past political campaigns. “Throughout his entire cancer experience, it was almost over,” says Marc R. Stanley, a close friend and chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “Clear health was right around the corner. He was making plans for the future.”

Baron’s funeral was held November 3, the day before Election Day. John Edwards left his North Carolina exile and flew to Dallas to attend. From the pulpit, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, another Baron beneficiary, looked at Edwards and told him that Baron was “your biggest fan.”

Baron “wanted it to go away,” the Edwards staffer says of the story that was tearing his friend’s life apart. That he believed he could make the whole mess disappear, despite the inconvenient fact that his friend was lying, was typical Baron—as was his outpouring of friendship and optimism and considerable sums of money. Fred Baron thought paying Hunter to move “was the best way to keep it out of the news and easiest on the family and easiest on everybody involved,” the staffer continues. “He thought he had the ability to do that.”

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast.