Inside the Edwards marriage.

Explaining political marriages.
Dec. 20 2007 3:34 PM

Elizabeth and the Big House

Inside the Edwards marriage.

(Continued from Page 2)

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.

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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."

Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.

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