Also in Slate: Meghan O’Rourke discusses what Elizabeth Edwards taught us about illness and grief. View a slide show of photographs of Elizabeth Edwards, 1949-2010.
The first time I met Elizabeth, I stood in a doorway in downtown Cleveland and found myself staring at her backside.
She was bent at the waist, her head upside down as she brushed her hair—bottom to top, bottom to top—trying to fluff it up, just as I had done with my own hair a half-hour earlier at home.
She stood up, saw me watching her, and laughed.
“I don’t know why I bother,” she said, her face flushed from leaning over. “Guess we never stop trying.”
It was March 26, 2007, just four days after she and her husband, then a Democratic presidential candidate, had told the world her cancer had returned and that this time, it was incurable. She greeted a sold-out crowd that day, including many women in wigs and head scarves who were looking for a hope that had nothing to do with a political campaign, and a herd of national journalists who were suddenly very interested in a long-scheduled speech at the City Club of Cleveland.
We talked a bit, and Elizabeth mentioned my second book, … and His Lovely Wife, which was about life on the campaign trail during my husband Sherrod Brown’s 2006 race for the Senate.
“I love the title,” she said.
I thanked her and smiled sheepishly. “I read your book,” I said. “You’re a lot nicer than I am.”
“Only in the book, honey,” she said, winking. “Only in the book.”
A lot of women admired Elizabeth because she was special but never acted like she knew it. She was smart and funny, wickedly good at word games, and full of opinions she felt free to share. She was wide-eyed, pretty, with a real smile and a Southern accent that was softer than a breeze.
She was many things before she was a candidate’s wife. She grew up in a military family and was a world traveler by the time she graduated from high school. She majored in English in college, where she developed a lifelong affection for the work of Henry James. She was one of only 20 women in a class of 200 at the University of North Carolina’s law school, where she met the man she would marry. She was an accomplished lawyer and mother to Cate and Wade, all long before most of us had ever heard her name.
Elizabeth could so easily have lost herself in the traditional world of the “political wife,” as if she were married not to John but to his profession. We all know that stereotype: a perfectly coifed beacon to convention who holds her place and her tongue, and smiles on cue. Elizabeth would have none of that. You don’t have to be a politician’s wife, as I am, to understand how Elizabeth helped redefine the brand, but if you aremarried to an elected official, your gratitude runs particularly deep.
After Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth did the most to champion a new role for political wives. The year John Edwards ran for president in 2004, I was a 46-year-old newspaper columnist who had just married a congressman. I was stunned to find that some expected a political union to suck the brain out of a woman and render her incapable of independent thought.
When I took a leave of absence in 2006, during Sherrod’s successful race for the U.S. Senate, I used the templates set by Hillary and Elizabeth to figure out how I would campaign for him. They were their husbands’ partners, and they didn’t hide it. I’d been writing about policy throughout my career, and I had no interest in going suddenly blank during Q&A’s and saying, “Geez, I dunno, you’ll have to ask my husband about that.” Thanks to Hillary and Elizabeth, I had a road to follow. It wasn’t well-traveled, but it ran much closer to home than any other possible route.
If there was one group of women standing in almost universal, albeit quiet support of Elizabeth when the troubles hit, it was those of us married to elected officials. We understand public guffaws, anonymous staffers with scathing quotes, and pundits so certain they’d be smarter, stronger, angrier than pitiful us. We also get what it feels like to be a regular woman leading an irregular life, lugging around the impossible expectations of strangers. I was so relieved for her when she finally retreated to her safe space, full of family and close friends. I sure wish she’d had longer to enjoy it.
As Elizabeth’s marriage, and her life, began to unravel, we saw how painfully human she could be. She was rightly criticized for depicting her philandering husband as the victim of a predator’s wiles, but I parted ways with those who ridiculed her for not dumping him sooner. No one knows a marriage like the two people in it, and how they chose to sort things out was a whole lot of nobody’s business.
More important, throughout it all, she refused to be a victim. She would not disappear. And yet many people who wanted to know the most sordid details of her collapsing marriage did not want to hear about it from her. It was one thing to laugh with friends and colleagues over the idiotic behavior of her husband, but it was an ordeal to watch the wife who had adored him so publicly wail, just as publicly, over the pain of his betrayal.
In her second book, Resilience, Elizabeth made clear that she knew time was running out.
She didn’t know what to do, she wrote, when people talked about the future. “Does it matter where the Olympics are held in eight years?” she wondered. “Maybe not for me. So when there is such talk, my mind immediately wanders: How long will I have been dead by then?”
Her time has now run out. Over the course of her life, she was many things to many people. She was a wife and a campaigner, yes, but also a daughter and a lawyer and, above all, a mother. Just that and all that. A mother who did everything she could to show Cate, Emma Claire, and Jack how to live without her.
Hours after Elizabeth’s death, NBC reporter Kelly O’Donnell cut off Chris Matthews’ rhapsodic soliloquy on the once promising political career of John Edwards.
“It’s not about him today,” O’Donnell said, her face grim. “It’s not about him today.”