Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The LuLac Edition #1397, Dec. 8th, 2010




The most disarming, beloved and beleaguered woman in the American political arena died of cancer today, 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 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 his two younger children, her breast cancer, which was advanced even when she discovered a golf-ball 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 Law School, where she was the smartest girl in school -- to the point of showing up the scariest professor on the first day of class -- and not that sure she wanted to go out with John Edwards. He was four years younger, not much of a reader, whereas she loved Henry James, and he came from a tiny town, while she 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 even while mothering their older children, Cate and Wade, to such extremes that she took on projects like growing an outfit made of grass for Wade's Halloween costume one year and making Snickerdoodles for the entire neighborhood. After Wade's death, she never went back to work in an office and turned her attention to encouraging John in the political career that the couple said Wade had suggested, and "parenting Wade's memory,'' as she called it, by opening a learning lab in his honor.
Because parenting was the thing that truly made them happiest, she always said. They were determined to have more children, and she gave birth to Emma Claire when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50. When John was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998 and then became John Kerry's vice presidential running mate in '04, 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 and policy chops that exceeded her husband's. Behind the scenes, she could be tough on staff, and was far more protective of her husband's image than he ever was -- even suggesting at one point in the '08 campaign that he introduce "Dr. Strangelove" as his favorite movie even though he'd never seen the film, because she thought it struck the appropriate anti-war message.
Traveling with her in '04 in California, as a reporter for Newsweek, along with just one young aide, 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, many of them of the mom-to-mom variety, but also filled with literary references. And at the same time, she did not even try to hide her intensity about making sure she was doing absolutely everything she could for the Kerry-Edwards team.
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 to the Internet in politics, and as a bit of an insomniac, would troll user-groups on the web -- as far back as 2002 -- looking for all discussions about John Edwards.
On caucus night 2004 in Iowa, Edwards (with almost no organization) almost defeated John Kerry, losing 38 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 '04 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 into the bathroom to take a look; it couldn't be anything, right?
What she did not, do, however, was tell her husband, who she worried might take it too hard, or get distracted. In fact, he didn't hear about it until more than a week later. How on earth had she managed that, anyway, I asked her in '07, while reporting a story for Slate. Had she learned along the way that denial is not all bad? Yes, she said, 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 said then, 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.
After her death became known today, Kerry issued a statement that said, "The same day our campaign ended at Faneuil Hall, 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. She became an inspiration to so many. Teresa and I, along with our family, send our prayers and deepest sympathies to Elizabeth's family and the children she loved so much."
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 a little bit unyielding on that front, too. (At the time, I took this as an unalloyed compliment, and wrote that like only the ablest of politicians, he'd correctly guessed precisely the angle of entry to appeal to my vanity, "because who wouldn't want to be compared to Elizabeth?")
She was less involved in the campaign in '08, and 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 come back. 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 lunch-time rally.
As they both took questions afterwards, Elizabeth was asked about the need for more public education about mammograms, and as she answered, the gym was completely silent: "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" – gesturing 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, in fact, Politico reported last week PD has confirmed, the FBI 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," she said she didn't regret her marriage, and still believed she had married a wonderful guy who had changed over time. "Maybe we all do," she added.
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 sat down and, though she knew at least some of the details of her husband's affair at the time, tried to sell me, and perhaps even herself, on honesty as his finest trait, and the reason she knew he'd make a wonderful president. No one ever had a better partner.
Yet for all of the now well-known turns in their relationship -- his infidelity, and her understandable anger -- I doubt that anyone could be surprised that John was with her and their children at the end, and that she would want the telling of her story to end as happily as possible.
Yesterday, on her Facebook page, a message posted under her name said, "You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope," she wrote. "These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined."
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," her family said in a statement. "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."
On her Facebook page just now, a friend wrote that she just knew that Wade had been waiting for her with open arms.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Henneberger is the editor-in-chief of, the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, published by Simon & Schuster, and a columnist for the Catholic opinion journal Commonweal. Previously, she was a reporter for The New York Times, where she worked for 10 years as a Washington correspondent and as the Rome bureau chief. Henneberger has also written a weekly column for and has contributed to publications including The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Slate, and Reader’s Digest.


At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The modern Maria Antionette has passed. She lived a life of opulence while urging for crumbs of the masses. Though she wanted to take from others and not herself.
Their fortune was based on junk science.
If one thing her death most definitely proves. It doesn't matter what type of health care one can afford. People still die. Though perhaps if she took care of her self after her first bout instead of obviously eating unhealthy, maybe she would have survived. But let's not discuss self responsibility in our health.

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous ann said...

May the karma wheel slap Anonymous in the face. When I see gutless turds post such vile stuff I sometimes wonder if there's much hope in the world.

At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW 9:30!
Looks like youve got a few issues.
Perhaps Mental Health Care would be an option and a little education
would go a long way too.
Too bad you hafta face another day.
Life must really suck!

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the world will get rid of 9:30 also. Who the hell are you to say she wasn't eating healthy? Stage 4 Breast cancer isn't exactly cured by eating well. Your unfounded, uneducated opinions sicken me. Maybe you'd be better off being euthanized. Asshole!

At 12:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now thats what I call getting to the point, 6:35.
10:23 was far too polite, but on target.
Sometimes there is a time to call someone an Asshole. Good example.

At 7:29 AM, Anonymous You friend and political sparing partner said...

Actually after she beat cancer the first time, a healthy diet combined with exercise, MAY have staved off the return. There are many studies demonstrating a link between diet and cancer recurrence. Not that it would have been a guarantee that there would not have been a recurrence, but it MAY have decreased the chances. Hindsight is always 20/20.

So Anon 9:30am, while crass, may have been accurate.

After losing a parent and many close relatives, and my own cancer scare, I feel very sorry for her family.

Hope your health is well, give me a call.


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