The most disarming, beloved and beleaguered woman in the American political arena died of cancer Tuesday, at age 61, at the Chapel Hill estate that Mary Elizabeth Anania Edwards once told
me she'd built in part to compensate for the succession of modest homes she'd lived in as a Navy brat.
"From years of living in military housing, I like a big room," the wife of then-presidential hopeful John Edwards said in an interview in front of her hotel lobby-sized Christmas tree three years ago. Because some of the bedrooms she'd had as a kid were so dinky you couldn't fit the bed in and still close the door, "my dream was to turn in circles if you wanted to." The 28,000-square-foot result was just one of the ambitions Elizabeth willed to life, brick by brick, along with a few heartfelt myths and the clear understanding that she did not want to be remembered as anybody's cuckold, or some modern-day female Job.
Before their 16-year-old son Wade's Jeep was blown off the road in a freak storm in 1996, John and Elizabeth "had the storybook life and the storybook marriage,'' his former law partner David Kirby told
me as Edwards was preparing for his second presidential run. But like most pre-Disney fairy tales, it also included some dark and confusing turns in the woods. On the campaign trail, Edwards' favorite fallback phrase was "It's not complicated!'' -- but the years they lived in public certainly were. For most of us, her story really only began on the worst day of her life, when the state troopers came to the door to say Wade had been killed and she promised herself that if her husband ever had to hear bad news again, it wouldn't be from her. I've often wondered if any of what followed -- his political career, the birth of their two younger children, her breast cancer, which was advanced even when she discovered an egg-sized lump six years ago, and his affair
with Rielle Hunter, who bore him a daughter -- would ever have happened if Wade had stopped for a Coke instead of being where he was,
when he was.
But Elizabeth wouldn't want me to start there, so I'll begin where she often did, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, where she was the smartest girl in class -- to the point of showing up the scariest professor on campus on the very first day. (When she knew answers others didn't, he tried to shame them, but she answered that maybe if he'd write something comprehensible on the board, they'd catch on, too.) That's when Edwards fell for her, he has always said, but she was not so sure. He was four years younger, not much of a reader, from a tiny town; she'd already been to graduate school in American Lit, loved Henry James, and had lived all over the world. When he finally did win her over, after their first dance under a disco ball at the Holiday Inn, it was when he kissed her goodnight on the forehead.
They married the Saturday after taking the bar exam, and she did some lawyering, too, even while mothering their older children, Cate and Wade, to such extremes that she was forever taking on projects like growing an outfit made of grass for Wade's Halloween costume one year, or making Snickerdoodles for the entire neighborhood. After Wade's death, she never went back to her office, even to pick up her things, and turned her attention to "parenting Wade's memory,'' as she called it, by opening a learning lab in his honor.
Because parenting was the thing that truly made the couple happiest, she always said, they were determined to have more children, and were over the moon when she gave birth to Emma Claire when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50. (A favorite story on the campaign trail involved receiving her AARP card while she was pregnant.) When John left his law practice and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, Elizabeth was not only at his side every step of the way but was widely seen as his greatest asset -- proof of the depth some doubted -- with an Everywoman appeal (the "anti-Barbie," she called herself) and policy chops that exceeded her husband's. Behind the scenes, she could also be hard on staff, and was far more protective of her husband's image than he ever was -- for instance suggesting at one point in the '08 presidential campaign that he introduce "Dr. Strangelove" as his favorite movie even though he'd never seen the film, because she thought it struck just the right anti-war message.
Traveling with her in '04 in California as a reporter for Newsweek, along with just one young aide, during the primary season of her husband's first presidential run, I remember her hoisting her own bag into the overhead bin and apologizing for sitting in First Class; she needed the extra room because of poor circulation, she said. In the car between events, she told great stories of the mom-to-mom variety, yet chock-a-block with literary references. At the same time, she did not even try to hide her intensity about making sure she was doing absolutely everything she could for her husband.
At campaign stops, she frequently quoted a few verses from "The Cure at Troy" by Seamus Heaney:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
The poem had particular resonance because the couple's personal loss was so entwined with his political plans, in her mind in particular. Her considerable drive, many of us who covered them thought, was in large part about extending Wade's influence -- in a sense, keeping him alive -- through the public service that the couple always said Wade had urged his father to pursue.
Never in modern politics -- not Hillary in 1992, not Michelle Obama in 2008 -- has a spouse been more central to a presidential campaign than Elizabeth Edwards was in 2004. All big decisions were made in the living room of the D.C. home they were renting while their "dream home" in Georgetown was getting an upgrade. Whether it was interviewing top staffers or working out spending priorities for the primaries, Elizabeth was on the case. She was also an early adapter of the Internet in politics, and as a bit of an insomniac, would troll user-groups on the Web -- which wasn't usual back in 2002 -- looking for all discussions of John Edwards.
On caucus night in Iowa in '04, Edwards, with almost no organization, almost defeated John Kerry, losing by 38 percent to 32 percent, and for a minute it seemed like anything was possible. But of course, as it turned out, this and the vice presidential nomination night in Boston that summer were the high points of Elizabeth's political dreams for her husband.
At the very end of the Kerry-Edwards campaign -- 12 days before Election Day -- Elizabeth was in the shower when she discovered a lump so large she called the friend who was traveling with her into the bathroom to feel it, too; it couldn't be anything, right?
What she did not do, however, was tell her husband, who she worried might take it too hard and get distracted. In fact, he didn't hear about it until more than a week later. How on earth had she managed to talk to him many times a day without telling him, or even letting him see she was worried? Or had she maybe learned along the way that denial is not all bad? Yes, she said mildly, and repeated what I'd said back to me, but with a look I couldn't quite make out.
As long as she didn't tell John, she told me, even she didn't have to let what was happening sink in. And if he didn't know it, how real could it really be? "I kept myself from thinking about it, too. ... I thought I was going to be fine, even when I was in the doctor's office" and he was telling her otherwise.
"The same day our campaign ended at Faneuil Hall,'' Kerry said in a statement after her death became known, "we saw Elizabeth head off to Mass General to confront this terrible disease. America came to know her in a different and even more personal way, as she fought back with enormous grace and dignity."
In the acknowledgments of his '04 campaign book, "Four Trials," John Edwards wrote, "Finally, my thanks to my wife, Elizabeth. I have spent many years trying to live up to what she believed I could be, and I am the better for it. This book and this life would not have been possible without her.''
When I was traveling with him and a couple of aides on a between-presidential-campaigns anti-poverty tour in '06, he told a story about her correcting his grammar at a "fancy Manhattan dinner party,'' and added that he had me figured as maybe a little bit unyielding on that front, too, no? (At the time, I took this as an unalloyed compliment, and wrote that like only the ablest of politicians, he'd correctly guessed the best angle of entry for an appeal to my vanity, "because who wouldn't want to be compared to Elizabeth?")
Though a passionate advocate for universal health care, she was less involved in the campaign in '08. My colleague Walter Shapiro says that the rawest and most wrenching public moment he can remember in politics occurred in a high school gym in Davenport, Iowa, in early April 2007 just after she returned to the campaign trail after learning that her breast cancer had returned. Because of the outpouring of sympathy for Elizabeth after the news -- and the drama surrounding John Edwards continuing the race -- their joint appearance in Davenport attracted more than 500 people to a lunchtime rally.
As they both took questions afterward, Elizabeth was asked about the need for more public education about mammograms, and as she answered, the gym was stunned into complete silence: "It had a chance to migrate because I sat at home doing whatever I thought was important and didn't get mammograms. ... I do not have to be in this situation. I am responsible for putting myself, this man" -- here she gestured towards her husband -- "my family and, frankly, all of you at risk, too. Because I think you deserve to vote for this man."
What she was saying -- and everybody there understood the implicit message -- was: I am going to die before my children get to high school because I didn't get a mammogram. But I refuse to allow my own negligence to prevent you from voting for this good man for president.
Of course, Elizabeth Edwards was not married to the classic definition of a good man, and a grand jury in Raleigh, N.C., is continuing its investigation into Edwards and his financial transactions back to the '04 campaign. But in a June interview on NBC's "Today" show, Elizabeth said that though they'd separated, she certainly didn't regret her marriage, and still believed she'd married a wonderful guy who had changed over time. "Maybe we all do," she added. In July, the former couple and their children traveled together to Japan, where she'd lived as a child.
The last time I laid eyes on Elizabeth, three years ago this month, she threw her arms around me and said, by way of greeting, "I wish my makeup looked like that.'' (I wasn't wearing any.) Then she plopped down on the couch, drew her knees up to her chin the way she always did, and, though she knew at least some of the details of her husband's affair by then, tried to sell me, and perhaps even herself, on honesty being his finest trait, and the reason she knew he'd make a wonderful president. No one ever had a better partner.
For all of the now well-known turns in their relationship -- his infidelity, and her understandable anger -- no one who knew her could have been surprised to hear that John was with her and their children at the end, or doubt that she would want the telling of her story to end as happily as possible.
A statement her family put out this afternoon said: "Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence but she remains the heart of this family. We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life. On behalf of Elizabeth we want to express our gratitude to the thousands of kindred spirits who moved and inspired her along the way. Your support and prayers touched our entire family." They asked that any gifts be made to the learning lab they'd founded in Wade's name.
And on Elizabeth's Facebook page just now, a friend wrote that she knew Wade had been waiting for his mama with open arms.
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