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