What You Can Learn from John Edwards and Rielle Hunter

He escaped conviction. She got a book deal. Michelle Cottle on the ballad of Johnny and Rielle—and the lessons we can all learn from their torrid affair.

Ida Mae Astute / ABC

Romeo and Juliet. Lancelot and Guinevere. Catherine and Heathcliff. Buffy and Angel. To the pantheon of legendary star-crossed lovers must now be added John and Rielle.

I know. I know. It’s hard to believe the fairy tale is really over. These two crazy kids seemed so perfect for one another. And talk about an against-all-odds romance: for years it seemed as though nothing could keep Hunter and Edwards apart. Neither his dying wife nor his killjoy political handlers. Not a predatory media. Not his plot to pass off their child as someone else’s daughter. Not her posing sans culottes in GQ. Not even a zealous federal prosecutor set on tossing Johnny in the clink. Through it all, Rielle stood by her man.

Then her memoir came out.

On Tuesday, What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter, and Me hit bookstores nationwide. That same morning, Hunter revealed to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that, late last week, she and Edwards broke up. Hunter insisted the split was mutual and ducked the question of whether it had been precipitated by any of the revelations in her book. Cynics will assume as much. Romantics may prefer to see the timing as one of those unhappy twists of fate.

In any event, all that remains is to sift through the ashes in an effort to make sense of what all of this meant—to him, to her, to America.

In the great cost-benefit analysis of relationships, Edwards clearly lost more than he gained. All that illicit sex and ego stroking were no doubt great fun, and the ex-senator may, as he insisted in the wake of his acquittal/mistrial last month, have grown to love little Frances Quinn “more than any of you can ever imagine.” But could any fling really have been worth devastating his family, destroying his career, and becoming a national object of derision and loathing?

The calculation is trickier with Hunter. She too has taken quite a blistering in the media—this after spending months on the run from the tabs. She had to endure her beloved loudly denying first their relationship and then their daughter. Her name is synonymous with the term “home-wrecker.” Then again, before hooking up with Johnny at that hotel bar, Hunter was basically nobody going nowhere. Now, she has a new book, a darling preschooler, and a celebrity quotient high enough to get her on the reality show of her choosing. Sure, much of the nation despises her, but at least she’s famous—which is all that really matters nowadays.

As for the American public, there are any number of important life lessons we can take from this whole sprawling political/legal/romantic saga:

1. Never trust a politician who spends more time futzing with his hair than his wife does. (Need a backup example? Rod Blagojevich.)

2. Don’t sneer at a story just because it appears in the National Enquirer. Yes, the tabloids can be tacky, sensationalist, intentionally misleading, and ethically suspect. So are politicians.

3. Don’t tape yourself having sex with your mistress. Ever.

4. Think twice about asking staff members to clean or cover up your personal messes. If things get ugly enough, they will throw you under the bus faster than you can say “movie option.”

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5. If you are ever asked to clean or cover up your high-profile boss’s personal messes, take good notes. If things get ugly enough, you might want to write a book.

6. If you have a secret booty phone, keep it away from your spouse.

7. If you do have an oops moment and wind up with a surprise love child, just man up and admit it. This is the age of cheap and easy DNA testing, buddy. Don’t be a dirtbag and an idiot.

8. Don’t shuck your drawers for a magazine photographer and then whine about the pix.

9. Don’t assume that just because someone is a dirtbag he is also a criminal. The Department of Justice will be scraping this egg off its face for some time to come.

10. If you happen to be in Chapel Hill and see John Edwards hanging out at one of those campus bars he liked to frequent pre-indictment, do yourself a favor: just keep on walking.