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POLITICS & SCANDAL

JOHN EDWARDS

Sipping coffee with wife Cheri at a country inn near their Chapel Hill, N.C., home, Andrew Young warily eyes a black cat outside. "The last thing we need," he says half-jokingly, "is more bad luck."

It's an understandable sentiment. Once a close aide to former presidential candidate John Edwards, Young, 43, is now, he believes, "unemployable." Neighbors he had once bonded with now snub him; he has testified before a grand jury about whether his former boss misused campaign funds. To top it all off, on Jan. 28, Rielle Hunter, Edwards' ex-mistress, was granted a court order against Young for the return of "a very private and personal" video. But bad luck? The man who helped invite disaster by agreeing to claim paternity of Edwards' love child knows better than that. "I screwed up," admits Young. "I was an idiot."

In his new book The Politician, he sets out to explain how it all went so wrong. When he first met Edwards in 1998, Young—a North Carolina-bred preacher's son—was trying to leave his troubled youth behind. Undone after his own dad was caught in an affair when Andrew was 17, Young says he "stumbled through my early 20s" and went on to graduate from Wake Forest School of Law, eventually doing fund-raising for the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers. The political junkie and the charming senate candidate hit it off. "If you saw John when he was on, he was magic," Young says. "He was the great hope." Hired as an aide, Young says he did anything Edwards or his wife, Elizabeth, asked—from fund-raising millions to overseeing the family's Christmas card photos. By the time Edwards entered the '08 presidential campaign, Young says he was earning $300,000 a year. "If I was a gopher," he says, "I was a well-paid one."

Along with the salary came more indignities. According to Young, when the Edwardses' bed broke one night, John called Young to help fix it. Elizabeth insisted that he sorted the kids' Legos by color and size. Still, the clans grew close. Edwards' younger children—Emma Claire, 11, and Jack, 9—would "come over swimming at our house with the Secret Service," says Young, who has three children with Cheri: Brody, 8, Grace, 7, and Cooper, 5. "They were like family."

But things were about to change. When Edwards began his now-infamous affair with Hunter, 45, in 2006, the candidate placed Young smack in the middle of the mess. John and Rielle would tell Young intimate details about their sex life: "I would always say, 'TMI! TMI!'" And after Hunter got pregnant in 2007, Young says Edwards made his stunning request: Would Young publicly claim to be the baby's father? "He said, 'The leadership of the free world is at stake here,'"says Young. "We were in so deep. It was surreal." Young relayed the plan to Cheri. "I was in shock," she recalls. But "we were completely dependent on Edwards financially. You don't think of consequences."

With the tabloids circling, Young, Cheri, their children and the pregnant Hunter went on the run, first in Colorado and then in California. They stayed in palatial homes funded by wealthy Edwards donors, with a tab that Young estimates was at least $1 million. (The grand jury investigation into the alleged abuse of campaign funds is ongoing.) The experience, he says, "was like falling down a rabbit hole."

Despite what Young says were promises that he would be "set for life," Edwards cut off communication with his loyal aide after publicly admitting the affair in August '08. (Without citing specifics, both Elizabeth and John have each separately said Young's book contains falsehoods.) Young decided to write the book, he says, "so the truth can be told"—not to cash in. "If I just wanted money, I would've sold the sex tape" that Hunter is now demanding back. "We were offered millions." Instead he says he's keeping it in a safe deposit box in case it's needed to corroborate his story—an idea he got from a John Grisham novel.

Still living in Chapel Hill just a few miles from the Edwardses, Young says he and Cheri are hoping for a fresh start elsewhere. Their son Brody's best friend no longer plays with him, and neither Young wants the kids to suffer more for their parents' mistakes. When asked to name his regrets, Young replies, "alphabetically or chronologically? I can say I'm sorry, but that doesn't make it right."