First Mates

Elizabeth and the Big House

Inside the Edwards marriage.

This is the second installment in Slate’s First Mates series, which examines the marriages of the presidential candidates. Read Melinda Henneberger’s introduction to the series here. Click here for the first installment, about Michelle Obama. In today’s piece, Henneberger looks at Elizabeth Edwards’ role in her husband’s life and campaign. Tomorrow, she talks to John Edwards about their partnership.

John and Elizabeth Edwards’ much-discussed new estate west of Chapel Hill is vast, all right, and not what I would have expected from Elizabeth, with whom I traveled some in 2004 as a reporter for Newsweek. Some Seamus Heaney verses she used to quote on the stump have been taped on my fridge ever since, though feeling fondly toward her sets me apart from no one I’m aware of but Ann Coulter, and even she might be faking. Yet wow, the Edwards place is 28,000 square feet if you include the squash court, with ceilings as high as in some actual cathedrals, and a fireplace in which one could roast a spitted ox. Honestly, if Elizabeth wanted to sit by an indoor waterfall or watch ballgames in her very own stadium out back, who could begrudge her? But this trophy home is at odds not only with her husband’s campaign message, but with the way she herself comes across. I would have said it wasn’t possible to love both Henry James and a house that could be a Marriott.

“I wish my makeup looked like that,” she says in greeting, having blown off putting hers on so we’d have more time to talk. In a plum pantsuit and stocking feet, with just a speck of green glitter under one eye from whatever do-it-yourself project she’s been up to, she draws one leg up on the couch beside her, and chin on palm on knee, settles in to talk about the recurrence of her cancer—which she feels her husband’s rivals are trying to use against him—and her 30 years of marriage to a man “who turned whatever harebrained idea I had into action.” Though no more harebrained—or hairbrained, for that matter—than Hillary Clinton, she usually underplays her political savvy, casting herself as the dreamer and her husband as the doer: “That’s what makes us a good pair; he gets bored, honestly, just thinking about a problem, and that’s why he was so frustrated in the Senate.”

One thing we don’t talk about that day in late November: The house I’m sitting in. Even reporters can show a few manners. But when I do get around to the subject on the phone later, she bemoans the fact that the long hallway that connects the main house to the rec complex adds a couple thousand square-footage to the total. The whole point of the campaign, she says, is that John wants everyone to get a fair shot at their dream house—via affordable college, available health care, and decent-paying jobs. Mind you, Republican presidential aspirant “Mitt Romney has tons more money and people don’t complain.” Nevertheless, “I’m not going to argue I don’t have a nice house,” she says, but then does: “You’ve been in our house; you don’t say it’s exceedingly grand, you say it’s exceedingly comfortable. This is not a mansion in the clouds, it’s a house where you can come and bring the dogs.” Why can’t others see it as she does, she wonders, “More as a love story than a macho, muscle-flexing” exercise in look-at-my-big-ol’-house? “I found the land before I had cancer, I drew the house up, and he let me build it.”

When I suggest that we mostly wonder why he’d do that in the middle of a presidential campaign, knowing he’d be criticized for living in the wrong half of the Two Americas he talks about, she asks, “Wouldn’t that have been worse, really?”—to refrain from doing so just for the sake of appearances? Worse as in more hypocritical? Yes. But then, it’s thinking like that that convinced John Kerry to be true to himself and go windsurfing; tricky thing, authenticity, since appearances are all voters have to go on.

But sometimes, of course, those appearances really are misleading. And contrary to the widely held impression that John Edwards is all flash and his wife is somehow too homey to care what her home looks like, friends insist that their 102-acre spread is actually 100 percent Elizabeth, whose husband doesn’t any more mind where they live than he does where they buy their clothes (Ross: Dress for Less) or household goods (Target) or celebrate their wedding anniversary (Wendy’s). No, the house was all her, trying to provide every conceivable amenity for her kids now, in case she isn’t around to shop for them later. It was her, putting their money into what they both value most: not cars and jewelry, but home and family. And by her own account, it was her compensating for the succession of modest homes she grew up in as a Navy brat: “From years of living in military housing, I like a big room,” she says, and recalls how some of the bedrooms she had as a kid were so dinky you couldn’t even fit the bed in and still close the door all the way. “My dream was to turn in circles if you wanted to.” So if there are contradictions on display, she says, they are her own and not her husband’s. Which is her position always, as arguably the most protective spouse on the presidential block, a woman who, particularly since the death of their 16-year-old son, Wade, in 1996, instinctively tries to get between her husband and incoming fire: “Blame me, don’t blame John,” she says, even if in this we never seem to follow her advice.

As it turns out, the candidate’s wife is not only an appealing narrator of their story, but a fully engaged political partner with an overarching role in minding his image and crafting his campaign message. Which is not surprising, since when they met, in law school at the University of North Carolina, the match was not immediately recognized as one between equals; she was a phenomenon from the first day, and he was shyer, more soft-spoken. He was small-town, she’d lived all over the world; he was straight out of college, she was four years older; he was completely practical, she loved theory; and he read thrillers, while she read everything but. As their daughter Cate, who is in her second year at Harvard Law, puts it, “She had been out with all these superintellectual grad-school guys who were rather cynical, and he was so hopeful it seemed naive to her at first. But he ended up making her happier.” There is no question that today, she really is, as her ‘04 traveling aide Ryan Montoya puts it, “In my eyes, just like a mother in everything she does. She and my mom have a lot in common. Once, my pants ripped and she said, ‘Get me a needle and I’ll fix it.’ ”

But her toughness and mommy-lion ferocity are less widely recognized. Though she and her husband do have some open philosophical disagreements—over gay marriage, for instance, which she’s all for—and spar regularly over his habit of taking off for a run just as dinner is served, her feelings for him have never seemed the least bit conflicted. On the contrary, she is on his side with a vengeance, and by all accounts harder on staff than the candidate himself is, never over her own status as a principal, but over how her husband is presented and represented. Though I haven’t asked, their law-school friend Glenn Bergenfield volunteers that, “She makes some very hard judgments on the people side. It’s very hard for me to imagine John firing anybody from the campaign. He’s a fighter pilot, but not hard on people, and I can’t imagine him ever saying, ‘You’re not doing a good job,’ whereas Elizabeth can. She’s the mother of America, but also expects that when people say they’re going to do something, they do it.”

Elizabeth Edwards has always been her husband’s most trusted adviser and advocate. “There was never a time when I wasn’t his best sounding board, because everybody has a slightly different rationale for being involved, and John knows I don’t have any ulterior purpose or agenda.” And though he’s dinged for being preoccupied with his hair, it’s his wife who is actually far more sensitive about his image. It was she, she says, who determined that the first co-writer for John’s ‘04 campaign book Four Trials, about his career as a trial lawyer, was too resentful in tone to accurately channel her husband. She also objected to the inclusion of a case that was later reversed on appeal: “That was an aberrational trial; if you were going to have a losing case in there, you’d have to have 40 cases” in the book to correctly represent his winning career. So, she brought in her English grad-school friend John Auchard to do a rewrite, and the other writer “got mad and took his name off the book.” She not only carefully monitors the media, but responds personally—once answering an article in Slate via the Fray, for example. And until she decided it was a bad idea, she used to respond to criticism of her husband in the blogosphere anonymously, under various Web identities.

It’s not every political spouse who can or will personally take on her mate’s partisan detractors with the gusto she has shown for the job in recent months—even calling in to MSNBC’s Hardball to confront Ann Coulter. She’s said that in fact, she would love to follow the conservative hatemonger around and harass her on a regular basis—except that doing so would turn her into just the kind of bully she’s no longer willing to tolerate. And in her memoir Saving Graces, she glancingly acknowledges her role in crafting some of her husband’s best lines—including, on Election Night in 2004, one that she and her husband hoped would keep the door open to contesting the outcome. Listening to a debate about what to say from the bedroom of their Boston hotel room—on the night before her cancer diagnosis was confirmed—she called out that he should tell the crowd in Copley Square, “We’ve waited this long, we can wait a little bit longer.” Which is exactly the line he delivered. “I didn’t know if I should put that in” the book, she says. “But even half-asleep, I thought of that.”

Another of her ideas, she acknowledges, was that her husband should introduce Dr. Strangelove as a personal favorite on Turner Classic Movies for a 2004 series called “Party Politics and the Movies”—even though, at the time, he’d never even seen the film. A TMC press release on the series explained that each week for the month leading up to the presidential election, a different U.S. Senator would “introduce a favorite film that ties into the theme” of political satire, war, courtroom drama, and so on. But alas, Orrin Hatch had already called dibs on Edwards’ actual favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird. So because he’s not a big movie buff, his staff started kicking around which appropriately themed film he should claim as close to his heart, with Elizabeth insisting that it be Kubrick’s anti-war satire. (Here’s Sen. Edwards speaking about his new favorite.) When I ask her about it, there’s no flicker of hesitation: “Yeah. Frankly, I sat down with my brother,” Jay Anania, who is a filmmaker, “and my brother gave me a list of six or seven” movies that would fit the bill, and she took it from there. “But he still hadn’t seen it, so no, it wasn’t his favorite movie.” Yet Edwards introduced it as such, after just a quick briefing from an aide? “I wasn’t in charge of making him actually see it,” she says with some heat. “I don’t staff him; I raise his children, but I don’t staff him!”

She also shows annoyance at some of the reaction to the recurrence of her cancer. Her husband’s supporters have always seen her as proof of his depth and substance, and detractors as his literal better half. But since her cancer came back last March, her health and their partnership have become even more central to the question of what an Edwards White House would look like. Sure, “We’re all going to die,” as she told Katie Couric on 60 Minutes. But as anybody who’s had cancer—and I belong to that not-very-exclusive club—can attest, reminders of mortality can send even some lifelong friends diving under the furniture. A blogger on the Web site Jezebel laid out the concern bluntly: “Say Edwards wins, and Elizabeth dies two years in. I cannot imagine the strain of mourning your spouse, caring for your children and being president of the U.S.”

This is the kind of talk that really pisses off the candidate’s wife, who was in any case weary of her status as Saint Elizabeth: “I’ve got enough reconnaissance to know where some of this is coming from, and it’s not all from people who are concerned.” Though no such links have been proven—and of course, they almost never are—she suggests that her husband’s rivals have been push-polling on her health in Iowa, and that voters often tell her they’ve been warned by supporters of other campaigns that because of her, her husband isn’t in the race to stay.

To which she has a few blunt objects to toss in response: “One, he’s already been through the worst, and the loss of a spouse is not as devastating as the loss of a child. Nobody else—John McCain, I guess—has been tested the way John has, and all of our greatest presidents have had staggering causes for grief. Lincoln, Kennedy, Jefferson, our great presidents, almost always had personal tests.” Besides which, “There’s no reason to believe—John just heard about a new treatment, and bless his heart, is calling doctors to find out about it—but my protocol is working now!” And if that changed, she knows from watching him after Wade died that his reaction would be to try to “turn the turmoil into something positive.” That’s what led him into politics in the first place.

Even after finding a lump the size of an egg in her breast in 2004, Elizabeth decided not to tell her husband right away. It was 12 days before the presidential election, and one of her worries was that he would insist on attending to her at the expense of the campaign. Another was that if anybody found out why the vice presidential nominee was distracted, he’d be accused of trying to capitalize on the situation. That particular concern—that the reaction of the press to a woman with breast cancer would be to suspect her mate of milking the situation—doubtless says even more about us than it does about them. But John Edwards didn’t hear about the lump until more than a week later—an eternity Elizabeth spent making speeches, making friends, making the case for her husband. And as usual, speaking to him on the phone several times a day. After Wade died, she’d promised herself he would never have to hear bad news again. Not if there was any way she could spare him.

So she held back, betraying nothing until after she’d seen a doctor. In many ways, the days before you know for sure you have cancer are worse than those that follow a diagnosis. How could she keep that lifetime in limbo from her husband? As their daughter Cate asks, “I mean, who is able to do that?” Someone who has learned that denial is not all bad? As long as she didn’t tell John, she says, she herself didn’t have to fully take in what was happening. If he didn’t know it, how real could it be? “I kept myself from thinking about it, too. As long as I could push it aside and tell myself I’d had a cyst before” then reality could be kicked down the road. “I thought I was going to be fine, even when I was in the doctor’s office” and he was telling her it was not fine, not at all. Unlike her husband, “I’m a worrier by nature, but not about myself. We say we are optimists. But we really are.”

Who would doubt it? Realists have no place in politics, especially at the presidential level. They tend not even to run, because electoral success is always a long shot at the outset. And they wouldn’t last long if they did, because voters seldom appreciate cleareyed assessments. (What they do like: Morning in America! Baghdad in a fortnight, then on to Damascus!) Bill Clinton’s famous ability to compartmentalize may not have done wonders for his private life but is a skill required in his line of work. Not for nothing did Karl Rove’s mentor Lee Atwater advise all his candidates to “play dumb and keep moving.” Even Atwater couldn’t hip-fake real life, of course, and ended up writing long letters of apology for much of his dirty-campaign-trick oeuvre before succumbing to a brain tumor at age 40. But the Edwards family has had more than its share of real life to outrun. So much so, in fact, that just how much stark reality the voter is willing to contemplate is at issue in his campaign.

Today at home, Elizabeth Edwards seems tired—and you would be, too, if you’d just decorated the tallest Christmas tree south of Rockefeller Center—but no less than fully convinced the country needs and is ready for her husband in the Oval Office. This year, on their 30th anniversary, they renewed their wedding vows in a private ceremony out back. What their union most suggests about the kind of president her husband would make, she says, pulling her hair off her face, is that “with John, you say the good things and the bad things; that’s the interaction in our family and home, so you could expect a high degree of candor” from him in the White House. I can’t say I sensed that high degree of candor only an hour earlier, when a campaign aide cautioned me that anything I might see written on the walls in the Edwards campaign HQ was off the record (I failed to spot anything remotely quotable on the Big Board). But hey, she doesn’t staff him.

And I believe Elizabeth when she says the main effect of her cancer recurrence on her husband is that it’s made him more himself—more driven and impatient, because the country and the planet don’t have all the time in the world, either: “This isn’t anger, it’s urgency about where we start as a country, and clarity about where the problems lie.”