How Tough Is John Edwards?

A new ad exploits the suffering of the Edwards family. But that’s OK.

Elizabeth Edwards responds to this article in Slate’s Fray.

John Edwards

I think John Edwards just made an ad about his wife’s cancer, but I’m not sure. In his latest New Hampshire spot, the gutsy and appealing Elizabeth Edwards talks about her husband’s toughness. It’s a sign of how the gender stereotypes are being challenged in this election that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is using her husband to soften her image, and John Edwards is using his wife to toughen his. (That’s the charitable view. For rival Democratic campaigns, the ad is an occasion to claim Edwards has been emasculated and make haircut jokes.)

Elizabeth Edwards starts by talking about her husband’s intelligence and how he works harder than anyone she has ever known, fighting for the voiceless. That he just finished a three-day tour talking about poverty grooves nicely with that message. The ad ends with this line: “It’s unbelievably important that in our president we have someone who can stare the worst in the face and not blink.”

What is Elizabeth Edwards talking about? She’s clearly referring to something in her husband’s past, but what? It is a measure of the toughness of John Edwards’ life that more than once, he has had to “stare the worst in the face.” Elizabeth Edwards could be talking about their teenage son’s death in a car crash in 1996 or her cancer.

I asked the campaign what voters were supposed to take away from this final line and got a strange laundry list. It’s supposed to refer to Sen. Edwards and his wife’s personal suffering, plus all kinds of other talking-point items that fall laughably short of “staring the worst in the face”: his career as a trial lawyer, the fact he admitted his Iraq vote was a mistake, the poverty tour, and his universal health-care plan. The campaign is either being coy or confused. If Edwards really knows the worst, he knows those other items don’t come close, which is presumably the point of the ad—what seems daunting to others is manageable to him.

When we see an ad with Elizabeth Edwards talking about “the worst,” we’re talking either in whole or in part about her cancer. So, how does this square with Edwards’ statement on 60 Minutes that he doesn’t want anyone to vote for him because of his wife’s cancer?

What seems new here is that Edwards is making an affirmative act to put his personal life before voters. Yes, he called a press conference and went on 60 Minutes in March when his wife’s diagnosis was news, but then it was a major development that required comment. This time, he’s not responding to something that’s just happened or answering a question from a reporter. He’s pointing us to his personal trials in an ad. That the ad and the campaign are coy about what Elizabeth is talking about suggests that they don’t want to seem to be profiting from her illness or her son’s death (as was charged most notoriously by Ann Coulter).

The indirection is a little irritating—trying to play on our emotions without getting called out—but there is nothing wrong with Edwards making the link between his private pain and his qualifications for office. He has endured his son’s death and his wife’s illness, and that not only makes him a tough guy but gives him a sense of perspective about the value of life. Those are qualities we want in a president. Not sufficient qualities, but necessary ones. He’s not asking for sympathy; he’s asking that we make a link to his life experience. It is, in a limited way, a version of the message John McCain sends about his endurance as a POW, though without the obvious element that McCain’s suffering was in service to his country.

Will it work? Not if voters conclude that all John Edwards has is his personal endurance. Then again, voters might not even recognize that the senator’s wife is talking about their personal hardships. But if they don’t, the ad loses its power. It seems necessary that we have an emotional reaction to Elizabeth Edwards’ illness and the shared pain of the loss of their son to receive the message about her husband’s private strength. Otherwise it’s just a wife saying nice things about her husband. Elizabeth Edwards is both a witness to his strength and proof of it.