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Jewish World Review
Dec. 10, 2010
3 Teves, 5771
Elizabeth Edwards Made a Bad Trade
Why I gave a break to Elizabeth Edwards, I do not know. She hadn’t asked me to, and it was not my practice to do so.
We were at the airport in Manchester, N.H., in April 2002. It was her and her husband’s first campaign trip to the Granite State, and they had gotten an impressive reception: ferociously wind-whipped sleet that coated trees, light poles and the two of them.
It was the end of a long day, John was staying overnight to campaign further, but I had seen enough and was heading back to Washington. As I approached the boarding gate, I saw Elizabeth sitting there (she had also seen enough), and I sat down across from her.
She came over, sat down next to me, reached inside her purse for her wallet, opened it and said, “These are my children.” Pictures of four beautiful kids, one of whom I knew was dead. But Elizabeth never talked about Wade that way. She had four children, not three. It was just that one of them was gone.
That was the endearing side of Elizabeth Edwards. Like most people, she had other sides as well.
I asked her if she was going to spend many days out on the campaign trail with John. “Yes,” she replied. “I lend gravitas to him.”
I don’t know if my jaw actually dropped, but I was shocked. Elizabeth Edwards was telling me she had to lend substance and seriousness to her husband because he lacked them? Political spouses do not say such things, no matter how true they are.
She was new to the game, I figured. It was the slip of a novice. She didn’t really mean it, I told myself, and so I never printed her words.
What a dope I was. Not because I was insufficiently mean but because I underestimated Elizabeth Edwards. She knew exactly what she was saying. She did lend substance and seriousness to John Edwards’s campaign, and she wanted people to know it.
There had been hints of the other side of Elizabeth Edwards earlier in the day, but I had ignored what they meant (though I printed them).
While campaigning nearly two years before the primaries was considered incredibly early back then, John had already received certain attention. People magazine had named him its “Sexiest Politician,” and Elle had called him “the new and improved Al Gore.”
But it was shaping up to be a crowded field: Joe Lieberman, John Kerry. Dick Gephardt,Tom Daschle, Chris Dodd, Howard Dean, Al Gore, Russ Feingold and Al Sharpton already had put out presidential feelers.
Could John Edwards stand up to that field? At the moment, Edwards was mainly worried about standing up to the brutally biting wind on Elm Street in Manchester. He jumped over a giant pool of slush and plunged into the Merrimack Restaurant, where he shook the hand of the first person he saw.
“Hah, har you?” Edwards asked Courtney Henrich in his soft and pleasant Southern accent.
Henrich, in a small and shy voice, replied that she was fine. She didn’t say so, but she also would not be eligible to vote for another 13 years. Edwards went on to ask the same question of Courtney’s mother and grandmother and any other human being that came within his reach.
Elizabeth dutifully trailed along, and she took in everything. C-SPAN had a crew with John this day — C-SPAN being the lifeblood, the glucose drip, the keep-hope-alive channel of obscure presidential candidates — and the producer had clipped a wireless mic to John’s belt as he entered the restaurant.
Since the restaurant was nearly empty as a result of the storm, Edwards decided it was a good time to head for the men’s room. As he was about to disappear inside, a look of horror passed over the C-SPAN producer’s face. She ran after him, lunged underneath his suit jacket for the microphone and said, “Um, do you want me to turn you off?”
John said he did. He definitely did. It was one of those things a new candidate learned. And you could see Elizabeth making a mental note: no TV sound when my husband goes potty. This was not a mistake John would make again.
I spent the rest of the day following them from house party to house party and talking to them in the campaign van. “Elizabeth is bright, funny and candid — three qualities valued about as highly as poison oak by many political advisers,” I wrote. “And began the day by asking reporters: ‘So, have you met anyone up here who knows who he is?’”
That was the other Elizabeth — the one who could not resist getting in a dig.
It is not surprising that many, many wives of past presidential candidates were brighter, more focused and more driven than their husbands. They lived in an era when it was impossible for women to run for president, so they lived out their ambitions through their spouses.
And so it was for Elizabeth Edwards, even though Hillary Clinton put an end to that era by running a strong campaign for president in 2008.
Elizabeth had learned about John’s affair shortly after he announced for the presidency in 2006. In an excerpt from her book in Time magazine, headlined “How I Survived John’s Affair,” Elizabeth wrote that she urged John to drop out of the presidential race but that he didn’t want to: “It would only raise questions, he said, he had just gotten in the race; the most pointed questions would come if he dropped out days after he had gotten in the race. And I knew that was right.”
But that was wrong. John Edwards’s decision was “right” only if the goal was to cover up the affair. There was an alternative: Admit the affair, ask for the public’s forgiveness and move on. This, apparently, was never considered by John or Elizabeth. The public, they felt, could not handle the truth.
Elizabeth’s goal was the same as John’s, even after she knew he had cheated on her: Get John to the White House no matter what. Get John elected, even after she knew he was a liar and a cheat.
Which is what politics can do to you. Somewhere along the way, you trade in your substance and candor for raw ambition.
It is not a good trade, and Elizabeth knew that. She eventually left her husband and presidential politics, turning to writing, campaigning for national health care and spending time with her children.
She died far too young this week at age 61, her gravitas regained.
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