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Elizabeth Edwards as Nick Carraway

5 years ago
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"If you take that piece out, I do have a perfect marriage."
--Elizabeth Edwards on Oprah.

And except from head to toe, I am Gina Lollobrigida. (Yes, am feeling retro today.) Excuse me if I seem flippant, too, but I just watched a woman claiming to be Elizabeth Edwards tell Oprah and all of us out in TV Land that it's immaterial to her if her husband made a baby with his mistress, and the whole thing was kind of surreal. "Completely extraneous to my life,'' is how she put it.

Still, she slapped the nameless blond around pretty good. (Nameless because the one condition placed on the interview was that Rielle Hunter's name would not be spoken. The Voldemort clause, I guess. "This person,'' is what Elizabeth called her.) And of her husband, John Edwards? "No one's perfect,'' she said. That is one lucky son-of-a-mill-worker.

He talked to Oprah, too, actually – looking like he was scared O might smack him, especially when she put her hand on his shoulder and said she just had to ask him something. (Whew! – turns out, all she wanted to know was whether he'd read his wife's new book, Resilience, the selling of which had occasioned O & Co.'s visit.)

After John, Elizabeth, and their two younger children welcomed Oprah to their 28,000-square-foot home outside Chapel Hill, Edwards made himself scarce. (Was he in his office with the intercom on, trying to hear what was going on in the living room? Could even so accomplished a compartmentalizer manage to busy himself knowing Oprah was out there interviewing his wife about his affair?)

As a one-time grad student in English, I'm sure Elizabeth could teach a class in the concept of the flawed narrator – the Nick Carroway character in Gatsby being the classic example of the storyteller whose view of the characters involved turns out to be seriously skewed. But until very, very late in this story, almost nobody understood how unreliable Elizabeth's own vantage point really was.

Once you do see, though, you can no longer fail to notice little giveaways, like how skillfully she drops into her story about how un-fancy a person she is – not too big on jewelry -- that "I actually jammed my finger, so I can't even wear my wedding ring right now.'' So that's why she's not wearing it, see?

She spoke of watching her own mother's belief that her dad had strayed make her feel "less than.'' (Lawyerly phrasing, though I guess if she's mentioning it, mom's belief was justified.) Which is why the one thing she'd asked John for as a wedding gift was a promise that he'd never, ever cheat.
We know how that turned out: Two days after announcing to the world that he would run for president for a second time, Edwards announced to his wife of then 28 years that he had been unfaithful – on a single occasion, he said, with a woman who was still traveling with his campaign as a videographer. (No, Oprah didn't ask why she didn't fire her derriere on the spot.)

And even now, she defends what was clearly their decision for him to stay in the campaign: "Truthfully, he was right'' to argue that exiting the race two days after getting in it would have looked too weird. Even when Oprah does ask why he didn't get out later, after her cancer came back, she answers with the non sequitur that at that point, she only knew he'd been unfaithful that one time.

Still, "I changed the way I talked a lot'' during that second run, she said, and that much is true. When I interviewed her in her home in late 2007, she was far more muted than she had been when I traveled with her in 2004, and spoke more of his virtues as a candidate than as a man. Which I noticed plainly enough, having argued with myself the whole way from Washington to Chapel Hill about whether I ought to ask her about the Rielle Hunter rumors.

I didn't. Though it's easy enough now to see how wrong that call was, when I recall sitting on the couch next to her with her feet tucked up underneath her, I can't swear that if I had it to do over I'd really pipe up with, "So, did he sleep with that skank or what?'' After all she'd been through with the recurrence of her cancer – and all she knew I'd been through, too, with breast cancer – I was in her living room because she correctly calculated that I would not go there.

By default or design, Elizabeth is not really a member of the reality-based community. She has, by her own account, constructed her own preferred version of events. So of course she doesn't want to know if that's his baby: "Actually, there's not much reason for me – this is the part where you have to concentrate on your own life and this doesn't – whatever the facts are, it doesn't change my life in a sense.''

When Oprah remarks that hmm, she doesn't know a lot of men who would run off to a hotel somewhere in the middle of the night to hold a baby that wasn't theirs, she repeats her husband's lie – or maybe he'd repeated hers: "Golly, then you don't know that many politicians. We do it all the time. Holding babies is what we do.'' We, she said. We politicians do it all the time.

"If we discovered that it was'' his child, she went on, "then that would be part of John's life, but it's not part of mine. I can't really see any up side to making it part of my life, honestly.'' So poof, it isn't. And "he doesn't know any more than I do'' about the paternity. You could easily find out, Oprah tells her.

But here's why she doesn't: "If I thought he was trying to start a family with this woman, you know, that would be one thing.'' After she's gone, she means. Friends of Hunter's have been quoted as saying this is exactly what he did promise her, and that's part of the reason the public has been so outraged. When he told ABC News that his wife had been in remission when he cheated, as if that made any difference, he might as well have set himself on fire as far as many American women were concerned.
"Do I think that's that's true?'' that he's looking to start a family with Hunter, Elizabeth asked rhetorically. "I do not in any stretch of the imagination think that's true.''

In fact, Elizabeth seems to have convinced herself that she and Hunter are not breathing the same air: "I don't know any people like this. I don't have any friends like this person. I don't have any way of evaluating.''

And it's this person she blames? "I blame John, but of course I – women need to have more respect for other women...I have created this life. This is a life I have put together. It takes a lot of work to put together a marriage, to put together a family, and you spend a lot of time trying to do that, and you can't just say, "I like the way that looks,' and knock on the door and say, "I'm in, you're out.'...Don't just come in and take somebody else's life.''

The bottom line in Elizabeth World is that "I have a husband who adores me, who's unbelievable with my children, who's provided for us in ways we never could have imagined.''

"He's fed you,'' Oprah puts in. "He has,'' Elizabeth agrees.

One of the things she feels he's given her is light – and spotlight. In explaining why it was important to her that "this person's'' name not be mentioned, she says that anyone who would "work at destroying my family and my home in order to get in that light, I'm really not interested in them being in that light too much. It's not about this woman. It's about this family.''

So, get out of my shot? She imagines that appearing in the spotlight in so tawdry a context is something Hunter wants? Clearly, it's something Elizabeth wants to deny her.

At the very end of the show, we see John again, and Oprah asks him if the two of them are in a good place now as a couple. "I think we're getting to a good place,'' he says, without a lot of oomph. "I love her, I care about her.'' Cares about her?

"Cares about'' sounds like pretty weak tea at a time like this. But here's what I care about: Swearing to goodness to remember from here on out that a politician's bang-up personal narrative -- even if it's true -- is not the be-all we make it out to be. If Edwards had been able to sell a story the way his wife could, John McCain might be president today.

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