Haunted by Elizabeth
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at 1:10 pm
What what she thinking?
That’s the question that continues to haunt the painful saga of John and Elizabeth Edwards. Not that she loves him and stayed with him after he confessed to having an affair (and possible lust child; though whether he told her about that we don’t know).
If we have learned one thing watching Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, it is that marriages are complex, each and every one, with its bargains, and attachments, and wounds that run deep. After, of course, insisting she was not some little woman standing by her man, Hillary Clinton was in many respects just that. It was clearly what she needed to do, sailing on post-presidency into the Senate and her own fierce run for the White House.
No, the question in Elizabeth Edwards’s case is: Why in the world did she go ahead and let him run — run with him, run hard all across the country, giving her all despite her stage four cancer and her two young children — after she knew. After she knew about his dalliance with a bouncy, blond so-called filmmaker with a penchant for New Age spirituality.
In these days of her public humiliation, one wants not to add to it. He is the cad, the creep. Looking back at his charm, his expensively coiffed hair, his caramel-voiced defense of the poor — while he built a palatial country estate. All this was a bit suspicious at the time. There were overtones of another Slick Willy.
But then there was Elizabeth Edwards. She was the moral anchoring point, the class act. So authentic, so warm, so unslick, so graceful, so brave. If a woman of such obvious depth and concern for the country, a woman who had lost a son and had faced cancer with openness and strength — sharing it all but not in a sympathy-begging way — if a woman like that loved a man like that, well then, he must be OK, too.
He must be, underneath the mediagenic voice and looks, real, too. Because he loved her. Because he was proud of her and said so at every turn. Because she was his sounding board, his best surrogate, his No. 1 campaigner.
The country needed her husband, she told us, with that wonderful smile, and she was willing to throw heart and soul into his run. Not just for him, not just to help him fulfill his ambitions — but for us. She made believers of us all — not about him, but about herself. She was the real deal, someone we could all emulate, want to get to know, want for a friend.
Yes, there was carping at the time from some quarters as they launched their White House quest, running side by side and hand in hand. What about the kids? They were little; they needed stability, a mom at home (what about dad?). And what about the cancer? Was she, the mother of such young children, jeopardizing her health by barreling around the county helping to humanize and sell her husband?
There was a bit of that, and the implication that her ego, too, might be involved — that she wasn’t quite as selfless as she appeared. But, with her energy and accessibility, she made believers of just about everyone, especially after she announced the cancer was back and she — they — would still run full-tilt.
Amazing, touching and, perhaps in hindsight, a little nuts. Because she knew all that time about the affair. She had to know the tabloids were after the story and after her husband — stalking him as he stalked the White House. It’s just a little bit bizarre, that disconnect, even from someone so special and admirable.
Somewhere in all this, she, too, put the blinders on. One can only assume she was thinking that he wouldn’t be found out. What if he had somehow gotten into more serious contention? What if he had actually won the nomination? What if had come out now, on the practical eve, of the convention? Would the media and the public just swallow hard and say, oh well, old news. None of our business.
Not this year. It would have been a mess, a bigger one than there is now.
That’s what is both troubling and sad. You can make the argument that this is private stuff, private pain. Many people clearly believe that would be a more desirable state of affairs — where personal lives and personal indiscretions are not constantly fair game. But that is not the world we live in right now, nor the country.
Elizabeth Edwards, so spot on in every way, had to know that. It wasn’t going to be tucked under any rug in her nice, new house. She could forgive him and re-embrace him — as she says she has. But the country might not be able to do that anymore. Bill Clinton seemed to get away with bimbo eruptions when he was first running for president, but the level of cad fatigue has geometrically increased. And, by running with her husband, Elizabeth Edwards, in effect, invited us all in — yes, even those nasty tabloids who had been chasing him from day one.
I just wish she hadn’t. I don’t want to know. I didn’t want to see the requisite mea culpa from the latest cad, didn’t want to have to imagine the disgust and hurt of his wife and family.
At least, John Edwards made the repentance rounds on his own. Elizabeth Edwards did not have to stand by her man, like Silda Spitzer, her face etched in pain and humiliation. That’s something. But the bottom line is the same: if you want to keep it really private, you can’t run for public office. Not today.
Anne Taylor Fleming is a novelist, commentator and essayist for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” She is the author of a memoir, “Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.”
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