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.