Why Elizabeth Edwards isn't Hillary Clinton.

Explaining political marriages.
Dec. 21 2007 7:26 AM

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. 

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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.

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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.

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