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.
I've got John Edwards on the phone, and he gets exactly four words into his first answer—"I think she thinks''—before his wife Elizabeth stops him. "She just said she hates any sentence that starts like that," he says, laughing. "I cannot even tell you how many times she interrupted me at the town meeting tonight. And now I've got her cackling on this end and you cackling over there. Oh, God."
The whole conversation is slightly comical, partly because he's in high spirits at the end of a good week in Iowa, where he needs to win and could. But also because as I keep asking questions about the two of them, he keeps consulting her on the answers. Or else, unasked, she offers critiques anyway. When he notes how relieved Iowa voters are to see her looking "fine, healthy, and spunky" on the campaign trail, it happens again: "She just said, 'Spunky? I'm 58 years old.' " When I ask about their reputation for playing good cop, bad cop, with her more the enforcer with staff than he is, he answers, "That's true. That understates me enforcing, too. But she's very direct." And has she fired a few underperformers in her time? "Hey, Elizabeth," he calls out, "did you get rid of people in the Senate you didn't think were doing a good job? I can't remember, but she can remember one person; she got some complaints and passed them on. She tells people what she thinks and is not one of these spouses who says, 'Here's what John thinks about this,' and 'Here's what John thinks about that.' No,'' he says and laughs again. "There is not a lot of faking going on.''
When I've seen the Edwardses together in the past, what I've noticed is not only that she finishes his sentences, but that he does not seem to mind. Like Bill Clinton, he's in a marriage of equals, only with someone who does bake cookies. ("She was up until 3 this morning making snicker doodle brownies" to freeze for their Christmas company, says Elizabeth's longtime friend and campaign aide Hargrave McElroy.) Like Barack Obama, Edwards counts on and brags on his wife's toughness: "She never complains," he says when we're talking about her cancer. "Well, she complains about me, but not about her health. I'd be whining like a baby."
Also like Obama, he has a wife who has been known to admonish him in public; one of his favorite stories about her involves her correcting his grammar at a fancy Manhattan dinner party. But people seem not to mind it as much coming from Elizabeth Edwards as when Michelle Obama does exactly the same thing. Which is not just deference to her diagnosis—she got away with it in '04, too—but that she comes across as so completely unconflicted in her loyalty to him. As Teresa Heinz Kerry did not when she kept bringing up her late first husband, and as Bill Clinton does not now, when he lets loose with lulus, like claiming he always opposed the war in Iraq, that only complicate things for his wife. No amount of message discipline can keep ambivalence from showing eventually, and when it comes to her husband, Elizabeth Edwards never seems at odds with herself.
As a result, Elizabeth's impact on the public's perceptions about her husband is remarkably unalloyed. Though the long, open-ended conversations I had with women across the country for my book about '08 were the absolute opposite of a poll—and took place before Barack Obama even announced his candidacy—I heard more positive remarks about John Edwards than any other presidential contender, Republican or Democrat. And unlike John Kerry's wife, who among the women I interviewed was brought up only by her detractors, Elizabeth Edwards was mentioned only by fans and was widely seen as her husband's ultimate character reference: "He seems to know her greatness, and that's different from just being a protective hubby," said Thalia Potter, an environmental activist in Tampa, Fla. So clearly, Edwards' wife is an asset. And in fact helps her husband more than the campaign would like to admit.
Nearly every Edwards intimate interviewed for this story has ventured that the most telling example of her role in his career was when he was working on his campaign health-care plan. She argued against requiring employers to provide insurance coverage. He listened to her, took her seriously, then disagreed. Only, this actually seems to have been one of the rare times Elizabeth's view was overruled. Is it the only example I hear because there aren't any others? In any case, I don't fall out of my chair when Edwards searches his mind for a minute and then comes up with the same example. "It's odd, but I'd say the health-care thing. She studied it deeply, was involved in every single conversation I was involved in, was on every phone call—oh, wait," he says, because his wife is talking in the background again. "She's pointing out to me she listened on those calls, she didn't talk. We were only considering two alternatives, and I thought about it and said I disagreed with her. Nobody could be a better advocate than she is, but she understands who's in charge."