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.
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.