Elizabeth Edwards: 1949-2010

The Week

Michael Tomasky at The Guardian:

How bizarre that it was just two days ago that word came that Elizabeth Edwards’ doctors recommended against further treatment, a step that suggests the person’s time is short, but still measured in weeks, usually; and then boom, it was just yesterday that she passed away at 61 from breast cancer.

I always feel a poignancy about people like this who didn’t ask for the spotlight but were thrust into it. The one false step I felt she made was that time she stood there with her husband in March 2007 to announce that though her cancer had returned, John’s campaign would continue. That was mostly on him of course, and it was one of many signs that made me really suspicious of the guy: your wife’s cancer starts attacking her again and you’re not suspending your campaign? It’s quite possible that she was complicit in this against her will, in that way political wives often have to be.

But far overwhelming that, she handled many difficult public stresses with grace in the last few years. Can you imagine being humiliated by a jackass spouse in front of the world and having to fight cancer; having to leave him while knowing that it meant that your life partner wouldn’t be there with you for the end of the battle? And then still working in the public arena for the things she believed in. And on top of all that, she had to bury a child, which is clearly the worst thing that can happen to a person in this life (I know; my parents had to).

Meghan O’Rourke at Slate:

In 2006, after my mother was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer at the age of 52, I felt a weird connection to Elizabeth Edwards. In some ways she reminded of my mom. They looked a little alike, they seemed to share a kind of pragmatic idealism and the gift of natural authority, and they both had advanced cancer in their 50s. So I felt warmly toward Edwards, and I rooted for her in her struggle, and I defended her when friends thought she was foolish to go on the campaign trail while ill. She should be at home with the kids, they said. Why? I wondered. The strange truth of cancer is that it both doesn’t transform you and does; it lifts you up, but it cannot make every moment holy, or perfected, or ideal. My mother chose to keep running a school, though it arguably might have been “better” for her health if she hadn’t. So who were any of us to say that Edwards shouldn’t devote her time to helping her husband become president? What did we know of the strange internal transactions that the ticking timer might produce?

Of course, I was hardly alone in my attachment to Edwards. One of the most distinctive things about her wasn’t just how much she suffered and survived—in addition to her cancer, she witnessed both the death of her son, Wade, in 1996, and of course her husband’s infidelity with Rielle Hunter—but how much of this suffering took place in public, where every move was analyzed and judged. Despite all this Edwards frequently acquitted herself with an aplomb and equanimity that led Arianna Huffington to speak of Edwards’ having “suffered multiple setbacks with so much grace” on CNN’s Parker Spitzer Tuesday night. Inarguably, Edwards did have what my colleague Hanna Rosin called an “ability to seem, in the same moment, invincible and also vulnerable and exposed” that appealed to many people, especially women.

But defending Edwards’ choice to soldier on in politics got a lot more complicated when it became clear that she’d known of her husband’s affair and yet continued to campaign for him. Women who had lionized her were crestfallen to find that she had believed (or that she’d pretended to believe) the affair was a mere one-night stand. Who was this credulous Elizabeth? Where had the straight-talking pragmatist gone? The revelation, as Rebecca Traister put it when Edwards appeared on Oprah in 2009 and let it be known that her husband had persuaded her he should stay in the race, was “crushing to anyone with an idealized view of Elizabeth Edwards.”

Ezra Klein:

The first time I came to Washington as an adult, I came to visit Elizabeth Edwards. It was May 2005, and a few weeks earlier, I’d gotten an e-mail inviting me to dinner with her and her husband. The invitation came from Elizabeth, but the one I was excited to meet was John. I was, after all, a young political junkie, and John Edwards was — or at least just had been — a real live presidential candidate.

There were a couple of bloggers invited that night, and when I rang the doorbell, it was John Edwards who answered and ushered me in. Behind him was a woman I didn’t recognize. She was heavyset with short gray hair, and she was setting the table. I assumed she was staff or perhaps an older relative. Then, of course, she came and sat down.

Edwards was then being treated for cancer, and she’d decided against wearing a wig that night. There was a sweet moment when John Edwards tried to rally the bloggers to convince Elizabeth she didn’t need to wear a wig at all, not ever, but she didn’t want to talk about that.

I wish I had a clearer memory of exactly what she did want to talk about that night. I remember the dinner. Lasagna and steamed broccoli and baked-meats-in-sauce that Edwards had made herself and that she shuttled back-and-forth from the kitchen while making complicated points about national security. I remember how impressed I was with her mind and how the excitement of meeting her husband was quickly overshadowed by the pleasure of meeting her. But what I really remember is what we talked about on other nights: Health-care reform.

The video atop this post is from a 2008 event I moderated on behalf of Campus Progress. It was Edwards’s first public event after the 2008 campaign and the subsequent revelations of her husband’s infidelity, and this was what brought her back into the public eye. Health-care reform. When she showed up, she was carrying a 50-page journal article that used survey data to connect foreclosures to health-care costs. She was the real deal, as you can see from her blogging on the subject.

Jonathan Cohn at TNR:

Edwards took her advocacy seriously and, fittingly, she was a serious advocate. A lawyer with a degree from the University of North Carolina, Edwards studied the health care system closely. Having interviewed her a few times, I can tell you that she understood the policy debate better than most politicians and, yes, quite a few journalists. But it was her passion for the issue that really stood out. She thought that making the health care system more decent and humane was a moral imperative. And she didn’t shy away from talking about it in those terms.

Following the revelations of her husband’s infidelity, which happened just as her cancer was returning, the media started describing her as a tragic figure. But she had come to know the true meaning of tragedy many years before, when her son, a teenager, died in a car crash. That she rebuilt her life and spent so much of her life advocating for others was truly admirable.

Edwards will not be forgotten. But she will be missed.

Jonathan Alter at Newsweek:

The scandal involving John Edwards’s affair with Rielle Hunter broke only days after my wife and I had dinner with Elizabeth and her brother in New York. I thought much of the coverage was gratuitous; after all, John Edwards wasn’t even in politics anymore and his wife was sick. Couldn’t we give it a rest? But I was appalled enough—and chagrined enough by my own inability to see beneath the surface of things—that I made no effort to contact her. Not long after, she sent me a one-sentence email apologizing for letting me down. It was cryptic and sad.

Elizabeth (not to mention her husband) had reason to apologize, especially to the scores of campaign workers who had uprooted their lives to work for Edwards. She had known of the affair before the cancer recurrence and should have taken that moment to make sure John withdrew from the race. Their decision to move forward anyway—a product of her fierce ambition as much as his own—was selfish and unfair to the millions of people committed to electing a Democratic president.

I later heard that the danger of nominating a candidate who could easily be blown out of the water in the fall campaign was perhaps not as great as it seemed. Had Edwards won Iowa, a few Edwards aides who knew of the affair were prepared to go public, destroying his chances. Or they might have chickened out.

Elizabeth handled the aftermath of the scandal badly. She used interviews for score-settling and wrote a second book, Resilience, that had Too Much Information. It seems she did eventually realize that. “There are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human,” she wrote on her Facebook page on Monday.

Americans love nothing more than to build up their politicians and other celebrities before ripping them to pieces. And so it bears repeating that these people are people, too. The culture kicked Elizabeth Edwards when she was already down. Now everyone is sad and sorry, but it’s too late.

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