ELIZABETH EDWARDS’S choice to stay in the political arena despite a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about Elizabeth Edwards. People admired her before she was ill for the same reasons they admire her now. She comes across as honest, smart and unpretentious — as well as both devoted to and independent of her husband. But we have learned a great deal about the political arena from the hubbub that greeted her decision. For all the lip service Washington pays to valuing political players who are authentic and truthful, it turns out that real, honest-to-God straight talk about matters of life, death and, yes, political ambition, drives “some people” (to use Katie Couric’s locution) nuts.
If you caught Elizabeth and John Edwards in the Couric interview on “60 Minutes” or at their joint news conference in Chapel Hill, you saw a couple speaking as couples chasing the presidency rarely do. When Ms. Couric gratuitously reminded Mrs. Edwards that she was “staring at possible death,” Mrs. Edwards countered: “Aren’t we all, though?” It’s been a steady refrain of her public comments that “we’re all going to die” and that she has the right to make her own choice to fight for her husband’s candidacy even as she fights for her life. There are no euphemisms or equivocations in her language. There’s no apologizing by either Edwards for the raw political calculus of their campaign plans. There’s no sentimental public hand-wringing about the possible effect her choice might have on her children. The unpatronizing Mrs. Edwards sounds like an adult speaking to adults.
Americans understood. A CBS News poll found that by more than two to one, both women and men support the decision to move forward. So do prominent cancer survivors in the media establishment, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum: Tony Snow (before his own rehospitalization), Laura Ingraham, Cokie Roberts and Barbara Ehrenreich all cheered on Mrs. Edwards. But others who muse on politics for a living responded with bafflement and implicit moral condemnation — and I don’t mean just Rush Limbaugh, who ridiculed the Edwardses for dedicating themselves to their campaign instead of, as he would have it, “to God.”
No less ludicrous were those pundits who presumed to bestow their own wisdom upon the Edwards household as it confronted terminal illness. A Washington correspondent for Time (a man) fretted that “Edwards’s supporters, and surely many average Americans” will be wondering when his “duties as a husband and a father” will “trump his duty to his country and the cause of winning the White House.” (Oh those benighted “average” Americans!) A former Los Angeles Times reporter (a woman) who covered the 2004 Edwards campaign suggested to USA Today that “this is a time when they would want to be home together savoring every moment that they’ve got.” A Washington Post columnist, identifying herself as a fellow mother, faulted Mrs. Edwards for not being sufficiently protective of her children.
As Mrs. Edwards moves forward both to manage her cancer and to campaign for her husband, she’ll roil more of the Beltway crowd. In a political culture where nearly every act by every candidate and spouse is packaged to a fare-thee-well for the voters’ consumption, the Edwardses’ story by definition will play out unpredictably in real time, with a spontaneity that is beyond any consultant’s or media guru’s control. Here is one continuing familial crisis that cannot be scored with soothing music to serve as a Hallmark homily in an inspirational infomercial at the next election-year convention. The Edwardses’ unscripted human drama will be a novelty by the standards of our excessively stage-managed political theater and baffling to many in its permanent repertory company.
That’s one reason it will be good for the country if Mr. Edwards can stay in this race for the duration, whether you believe he merits being president or not. (For me, the jury on that question is out.) The more Elizabeth Edwards is in the spotlight, the more everyone else in the arena will have to be judged against her. Next to her stark humanity, the slick playacting that passes for being “human” and “folksy” in a campaign is tinny. Though much has been said about how she is a model to others battling cancer, she is also a model (or should be) of personal transparency to everyone else in the presidential race.
This is especially true in a campaign where the presumptive (or at least once-presumptive) front-runners in both parties have made candor their calling card: John McCain is once again riding his Straight Talk Express and Hillary Clinton is staking her image on the rubric “Let the Conversation Begin!” They want us to believe that they are speaking in a direct, unfiltered manner, but so far their straight talking, even without Elizabeth Edwards as a yardstick, seems no more natural than Cheez Whiz.
Senator McCain’s bus has skidded once more into a ditch since the Edwards news conference. He’s so desperate to find the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq that last week he told the radio jock Bill Bennett that “there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk.” Yes, if they’ve signed a suicide pact. Even as the senator spoke, daily attacks were increasing in the safest of Baghdad neighborhoods, the fortified Green Zone, one of them killing two Americans. No one can safely “walk the streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Kirkuk, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor Ramadi, without heavily armed protection,” according to the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who delivered an Iraq briefing (pdf) to the White House last week.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign “conversations” with the public have not stooped to the level of Mr. McCain’s fictions. But they have been laced with the cautious constructions that make her stabs at spontaneity seem as contrived as her rigidly controlled Web “chats.” This explains why a 74-second parody ad placed on YouTube by a Barack Obama supporter had enough resonance to earn (so far) nearly three million views. Reworking a famous Apple Macintosh commercial from 1984, the spot recasts Mrs. Clinton as an Orwellian Big Brother by making her seemingly innocuous campaign catchphrases (“I intend to keep telling you exactly where I stand on all the issues” and “We all need to be part of the discussion”) sound like the hollow pronouncements of the Wizard of Oz rather than the invitations to honest interchange the words imply.
Since the Edwards storm broke, there have been unintended consequences for other campaigns, too. In an accident of timing, Judith Nathan picked the same day as the Edwards news conference to explain that she was only now, after six years in public life, correcting the inaccurate published record of the number of her pre-Giuliani marriages (two, not one). Juxtaposed with the Edwards headlines, the dishonesty unmasked by this confession looked even worse than it might have otherwise. In a less vulgar vein, the first major Democratic campaign event after the Edwards announcement, a forum on health care, prompted more than the usual sniping about Mr. Obama’s substance when his policy prescription lacked the specifics in Mr. Edwards’s plan.
The power of Elizabeth Edwards’s persona is such that the husband at her side will be challenged to measure up to her, too, perhaps even more so than his opponents. No one may be labeling him “the Breck girl” anymore (the subject of another popular Web video parodying his coiffure maintenance), but should his campaign prove blow-dried when he moves beyond health care, he’ll pay his own hefty political price for the inauthenticity.
Whatever Mr. Edwards’s flaws as a candidate turn out to be, he is not guilty of the most persistent charge leveled since his wife’s diagnosis. As Ms. Couric phrased it, “Even those who may be very empathetic to what you all are facing might question your ability to run the country at the same time you’re dealing with a major health crisis in your family.”
Would it be better if he instead ran the country at the same time he was clearing brush on a ranch? Polio informed rather than crippled the leadership of F.D.R.; Lincoln endured the sickness and death of a beloved 11-year-old son during the Civil War. In the wake of our congenitally insulated incumbent, who has given our troops neither proper armor nor medical care and tried to hide their coffins off camera, surely it can only be a blessing to have a president, whether Mr. Edwards or someone else, who knows intimately what it means to cope daily with the threat of mortality. It’s hard to imagine such a president smiting stem-cell research or skipping the funerals of the fallen.
Indeed, of all the reasons to applaud Elizabeth Edwards’s decision to stay in politics, the most important may be her insistence, by her very action, that we not compartmentalize the harsh reality of death and the imperatives of public policy, both at home and at war. Let the real conversation begin.
"Elizabeth Edwards for President" >>