Oprah's Rielle Hunter Strategy: Bring Out the Crazy

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Left; Jim R. Bounds / AP: Mary Altaffer / AP

Rielle Hunter and her child, left, and Oprah Winfrey

Over on Oprah.com, the comments posted were about 60 gajillion to 1 against Oprah's interviewing Rielle Hunter, John Edwards' mistress, before the episode aired on April 29. "Please PLEASE, do not show the interview with this hunter [sic] person," read a comment from a woman who said she'd never written anything on the Internet before. "Frankly," wrote another, "I think giving this woman a moment of air time is more than inappropriate, it's beneath you, Oprah."

But to the lioness of all media, that kind of reaction is catnip. What everyone (especially everyone female and married) wants to know in a situation like Rielle's is, How could she? How could she sleep with a man she knew was married and continue the affair when she knew the wife had cancer? What was she thinking? And Oprah's specialty is texturizing those who have been dismissed as monsters.

But if Winfrey's fans were afraid Hunter was going to get the compassionate, empathetic Oprah they're used to, they were mistaken. To the disappointment of some, they didn't get the host in her glorious, wrathful, James Frey mode either. Oprah simply brought a big bag of rope to her interview with the mother of John Edwards' love child and doled out enough at a time to let Hunter macramé herself an attractive noose:

Oprah: Do you think you hurt Elizabeth Edwards?
Hunter: She was hurt by the process.

Oprah: You didn't answer the question.
Hunter: Do I think I hurt Elizabeth? Um, you would have to ask Elizabeth that. I don't know.

Oprah: Do you regret being a mistress?
Hunter: No, because I learned a lot.

Hunter, who never lost her poise (except for when she briefly teared up while remembering her daughter and baby-daddy's first meeting), has the knack of articulating completely narcissistic and delusional thoughts with a disarming blitheness. She's puzzled that people think her remotely culpable in the affair. For her, the right and obvious thing to do is always to follow "your own truth" and to be really "authentic," even when such authenticity requires you to buy your married lover a secret phone so he can call you without anyone knowing.

She also appears to be unaware of any hypocrisy that might arise in such an approach to life. After posing for GQ wearing nothing but pearls and a man's dress shirt — and after inviting the most popular talk-show host in the English-speaking world into her home to discuss, among other things, her sex video — she dismissed Oprah's question about her relationship with John. "I'm a very private person," she says. "I need boundaries."

Despite what Oprah's fans say, for a subject like Hunter, Winfrey is the perfect interrogator. After all, who has more years of interviewing crazies? She knew she didn't need to use the hammer. You could almost see her holding back the knowing side glances to Camera 3 and just catching herself before making air-quotes gestures when asking about "Johnny," Hunter's pet name for Edwards. Nobody watching could have missed the deep skepticism in Oprah's eyes. But Hunter, as seemingly innocent of the effects of her actions on the rest of the world as ever, appeared oblivious and gave Oprah and viewers the full tour of her scenic hometown, Delusionville.

It was compelling TV, but in the end, Hunter didn't seem any more understandable than when the National Enquirer first discovered her. She gave us no more insight into why women participate in events that are almost certain to hurt other women — and possibly some children — than any of Tiger Woods' "But I thought he loved me!" naïfs. One day, perhaps, mistresses will find their champion. But it isn't Rielle Hunter, unless denial is the sport.