First Mates

One for the Price of Two

Why Elizabeth Edwards isn’t Hillary Clinton.

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 yesterday’s piece, Henneberger looked at Elizabeth Edwards’ role in her husband’s life and campaign. Today, she talks to John Edwards about their partnership. 

I’ve got John Edwards on the phone, and he gets exactly four words into his first answer—“I think she thinks”—before his wife Elizabeth stops him. “She just said she hates any sentence that starts like that,” he says, laughing. “I cannot even tell you how many times she interrupted me at the town meeting tonight. And now I’ve got her cackling on this end and you cackling over there. Oh, God.”

The whole conversation is slightly comical, partly because he’s in high spirits at the end of a good week in Iowa, where he needs to win and could. But also because as I keep asking questions about the two of them, he keeps consulting her on the answers. Or else, unasked, she offers critiques anyway. When he notes how relieved Iowa voters are to see her looking “fine, healthy, and spunky” on the campaign trail, it happens again: “She just said, ‘Spunky? I’m 58 years old.’ ” When I ask about their reputation for playing good cop, bad cop, with her more the enforcer with staff than he is, he answers, “That’s true. That understates me enforcing, too. But she’s very direct.” And has she fired a few underperformers in her time? “Hey, Elizabeth,” he calls out, “did you get rid of people in the Senate you didn’t think were doing a good job? I can’t remember, but she can remember one person; she got some complaints and passed them on. She tells people what she thinks and is not one of these spouses who says, ‘Here’s what John thinks about this,’ and ‘Here’s what John thinks about that.’ No,” he says and laughs again. “There is not a lot of faking going on.”

When I’ve seen the Edwardses together in the past, what I’ve noticed is not only that she finishes his sentences, but that he does not seem to mind. Like Bill Clinton, he’s in a marriage of equals, only with someone who does bake cookies. (“She was up until 3 this morning making snicker doodle brownies” to freeze for their Christmas company, says Elizabeth’s longtime friend and campaign aide Hargrave McElroy.) Like Barack Obama, Edwards counts on and brags on his wife’s toughness: “She never complains,” he says when we’re talking about her cancer. “Well, she complains about me, but not about her health. I’d be whining like a baby.”

Also like Obama, he has a wife who has been known to admonish him in public; one of his favorite stories about her involves her correcting his grammar at a fancy Manhattan dinner party. But people seem not to mind it as much coming from Elizabeth Edwards as when Michelle Obama does exactly the same thing. Which is not just deference to her diagnosis—she got away with it in ‘04, too—but that she comes across as so completely unconflicted in her loyalty to him. As Teresa Heinz Kerry did not when she kept bringing up her late first husband, and as Bill Clinton does not now, when he lets loose with lulus, like claiming he always opposed the war in Iraq, that only complicate things for his wife. No amount of message discipline can keep ambivalence from showing eventually, and when it comes to her husband, Elizabeth Edwards never seems at odds with herself.

As a result, Elizabeth’s impact on the public’s perceptions about her husband is remarkably unalloyed. Though the long, open-ended conversations I had with women across the country for my book about ‘08 were the absolute opposite of a poll—and took place before Barack Obama even announced his candidacy—I heard more positive remarks about John Edwards than any other presidential contender, Republican or Democrat. And unlike John Kerry’s wife, who among the women I interviewed was brought up only by her detractors, Elizabeth Edwards was mentioned only by fans and was widely seen as her husband’s ultimate character reference: “He seems to know her greatness, and that’s different from just being a protective hubby,” said Thalia Potter, an environmental activist in Tampa, Fla. So clearly, Edwards’ wife is an asset. And in fact helps her husband more than the campaign would like to admit.

Nearly every Edwards intimate interviewed for this story has ventured that the most telling example of her role in his career was when he was working on his campaign health-care plan. She argued against requiring employers to provide insurance coverage. He listened to her, took her seriously, then disagreed. Only, this actually seems to have been one of the rare times Elizabeth’s view was overruled. Is it the only example I hear because there aren’t any others? In any case, I don’t fall out of my chair when Edwards searches his mind for a minute and then comes up with the same example. “It’s odd, but I’d say the health-care thing. She studied it deeply, was involved in every single conversation I was involved in, was on every phone call—oh, wait,” he says, because his wife is talking in the background again. “She’s pointing out to me she listened on those calls, she didn’t talk. We were only considering two alternatives, and I thought about it and said I disagreed with her. Nobody could be a better advocate than she is, but she understands who’s in charge.”

No audible word on whether this last was an acceptable thing to say, but even (especially?) when the candidate’s spouse is more popular than the candidate himself, he is nonetheless required to distance himself from the two-for-one Hill and Bill model that everyone is supposed to say they have no intention of copying. Nope, none at all. (In an earlier conversation, when I started to ask Elizabeth what role she might have as first lady, she did not even let me finish the sentence: “I can see where this is going, and the answer is no. I don’t deserve a seat at the table.”) Heaven forfend, right?

Their law school buddy Glenn Bergenfield thinks that Hillary Clinton’s mistakes as first lady have effectively made it impossible for John and Elizabeth to say otherwise: “Hillary blew it for us as first lady”—not because she took on a policy role but because she took it on and failed at it. “After she booted health care, she had to go back to pretending to be marginalized. But you can’t go back” to a model that probably never did accurately reflect the partnership between presidents and first mates.

Which won’t keep us from trying, though even Laura Bush, so widely praised for staying out of sight, presumably at home with a good book, recently told Fox News she’s had a policy role all along: “The fact is, I’ve been involved for a long time in policy, and I think I just didn’t get a lot of coverage on it,” she said on a Sunday show appearance in October. “I mean, I really do think there’s a stereotype. And I was stereotyped as being a certain way because I was a librarian and a teacher and, you know, had the careers that traditional women have.” This is not at all how she played it in 2000, when she proposed herself as the sharpest possible contrast to Hillary Rodham Clinton. According a CNN report at the time, “Laura has declared publicly she has no interest in advising her husband on policy issues.”

One difference between the Edwards model and the Clintons circa 1992 is that the lines of authority are clear. Another is that Elizabeth doesn’t have electoral ambitions of her own. But if she didn’t take a substantive role in an Edwards White House—either for health reasons or because she didn’t think it politically wise—it would certainly be a departure from her role up until now. She’s a wonk’s wonk who “could stay up all night like a college kid talking about No Child Left Behind. She loves it,” Bergenfield says. “She’s more like Bill Clinton than John is, really fascinated more by the ideas.” When Edwards was in the Senate, she routinely sat in on meetings, and her current campaign role is significant, too: “She’s involved in a lot of the political and policy decisions, in on a lot of the phone calls,” Bergenfield says. When formulating the particulars of Edwards’ education policy, for instance, “She was the one who’d say that’s right or that’s wrong and was one of the powerful people in the room.”

Which is nothing new; it was Elizabeth Anania’s fearlessness about speaking truth to power that caught John Edwards’ attention on their first day of law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in 1974. “We had an obnoxious law school professor” who immediately made clear that he intended to humiliate all comers, Edwards says. “It’s Socratic method, and the first guy stands up, and I’m not going to call his name, but he did a terrible job. Then—they’re going alphabetically—it’s Elizabeth’s turn: ‘Anania!’ ” Only, she knows the answer to every question. “And I remember thinking, “Jeez, listen to that.’ ” After what might have been the beginning of her tenure as teacher’s pet, the professor scribbles madly on the board, in an effort to explain to the rest of the class the concepts that Elizabeth had already grasped. “But it still doesn’t make any sense, and we’re all quiet. Finally, Elizabeth raises her hand, and he calls on her: ‘Anania? I’m trying to make everyone understand this the way we do.’ And she says, ‘Well, if that’s true, then you need to put something on the board that’s not as clear as mud.’ ”

Gorgeous and gregarious, she hesitated when Edwards first asked her out: “She’s talked about how he dressed in a sweater vest, which even in the ‘70s wasn’t a good idea,” Bergenfield laughs, “and I can picture him walking away from the law school frustrated” that she didn’t seem to return his interest, “and I said, ‘Just hold on.’ ” So, Bergenfield says, “I made the case for him; I was his lawyer. Elizabeth was holding court in the old well of the law school—she’d always sit there and fix people up, not necessarily romantically, but just tell people they had things in common and should know each other—and I just remember telling her the differences between you two are temporary, you’d like him, and he likes you; it’s just nerves. I think they both sensed that something really big was afoot. He was quiet, but even then he had some idea how the world worked, and who was full of beans and who wasn’t.”

Elizabeth’s brother Jay Anania, a filmmaker who was an undergrad at UNC when his sister and Edwards were in law school there, said that even when they did get together, he and others didn’t see them as a good match at first: “She was something of a phenomenon on campus and had this network of literary types and poets, and this very handsome but somewhat shy boyfriend from Robbins, N.C., didn’t fit.” She’s always said it was his kindness that drew her to him, when after their first date under a disco ball at the local Holiday Inn, he kissed her goodnight on the forehead.

Deeply involved in the anti-war movement, she also loved that, as Edwards’ childhood friend the Rev. John Frye Jr., a Presbyterian minister, says, “John always had a passion for those on the margins,” as far back as middle school. “My mother was chair of the county school board and led the desegregation, and John and his folks were always affirming of her. And believe me, we did not get that from everybody.”

John and Elizabeth married the Saturday after taking the bar exam in 1977, had two kids and all the success in the world—”the storybook life and the storybook marriage,” says his former law partner David Kirby—right up until the day their son Wade died. “He could never have gotten past the death of his son without her,” Kirby says. It was a loss that nearly crushed Edwards, who quit the firm to grieve and told friends he had to make a contribution to the world that would make Wade proud, or he wouldn’t be able to stand it. A few friends, Kirby included, came and sat with the couple nearly every evening, and their daughter Cate slept on a chair in their room every night for a full two years, to keep them propped up through some of the worst hours. Whatever you think of Edwards as a candidate, I defy anyone to look without bawling at the photo in Elizabeth’s book Saving Graces of one of the coupons for free ice cream they passed out on what would have been their son’s 17th birthday. “The gift you can give in Wade’s name,” the coupon said, “is to do something nice for someone else.” And in a sense, his—their—whole public life is meant to be an exercise in Paying It Forward.

You know how the more you get to know a couple, the more the one you thought was too good for the other turns out to be more human than you knew? Or else the one who didn’t seem to measure up does after all? As in most cases, with Wade’s parents, it’s some of both; she’s slicker than we think—real, oh my, yes, but also a skilled pitchwoman for the man she believes in with all her heart. Just as he is more earnest than his glib, lawyerly pitches might suggest. When we criticize his—their—contradictions, like the house and the famous $400 haircut, what we never acknowledge is the classist assumption that one should know how to avoid drawing attention to one’s material success. Certainly he is  stubborn about refusing to in any way downplay the fruits of his labors: Why not live in the biggest house in the county? Which is not politic, but is so “real,” that it’s the opposite of slick. As is his deference to Elizabeth—which is why he can’t quite bring himself to take her advice and dismiss any real role for her out of hand.