‘Resilience” is the title of the book. The common metaphor used – and it’s used by Elizabeth Edwards in a passage quoted on the dust jacket – is getting back on your feet after you’ve been knocked down. After a hard hit, though, it’s best to take some time before getting up. But time is something Elizabeth doesn’t have. As she told Oprah Winfrey last week, the incurable cancer with which she lives could end her life in 10 years or one, or less than one. Understandably, therefore, she’s anxious to give her account of John’s infidelity during his presidential campaign, their decision that he should remain in the race regardless, and their decision to stay in even when, three months later, they learned of her cancer’s recurrence in terminal form. Anxious to get it all behind her as she enters her ‘new reality” as a woman who loves her husband but cannot fully trust him.
It’s a hurried, incomplete telling, then, interspersed across what amounts to a long essay about grief and how hard it is disentangling from broken dreams.
For Edwards supporters, though, who presumably will be its chief audience, it serves mainly as a disquieting reminder of how much we didn’t know, or knew but set aside, as we climbed aboard for the thrill ride of a presidential run that wasn’t safe for anyone.
Elizabeth says that John confessed to her on December, 30, 2006, that he’d been with a campaign aide, Rielle Hunter, but only for a single night. John’s confession, as she relates it, came out of the blue. He wasn’t forced into it by events or fear of discovery; his reason, she says, was remorse. She didn’t learn that John’s ‘indiscretion” was in fact a drawn-out affair, and that John may be the father of Hunter’s child (something John has said isn’t possible because of the timing), until after he’d ended his campaign in the spring of 2008.
So when, in March of 2007, the Edwards learned that Elizabeth’s cancer had spread throughout her body and they announced the terrible news at that press conference in Chapel Hill, she wasn’t thinking that they ought to take the chance to get him out of the race lest he do serious damage to the Democratic party and the nation by winning.
Just the opposite, she says. Her instinct was to hang on tight. In the same way, she says, that she’d wanted her old life back after her son, Wade, was killed in a freak car accident in 1996 … wanted it back after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 … wanted it back after John’s confession … she desperately wanted to believe that something of her old life could endure even with the new diagnosis and John’s betrayal of trust:
‘Is it so hard to understand,” she writes, ‘that I desperately wanted that life back, back before all the words and acts that might have separated us? I could not simply retreat to my home with nothing but death in my future. It might be hard to understand, but I had done nothing wrong at all, and yet my life, so carefully constructed, so carefully attended to, was being eaten away. What did I have to rescue it, to mend it back to how I wanted it to be? … I pressed on with what seemed important to me.”
It does no good now to think that she should’ve seen John’s confession for what it was – an incredible tale – or even that she did see it but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, grasp what it meant. So what, she’s living with an incurable disease and a reckless, philandering husband and she’s not thinking with 100 percent clarity?
Elizabeth did press on in John’s campaign with the greatest conviction, telling listeners how ‘unbelievably important” it was that he be elected president, both for his progressive positions on the issues and because he was ‘completely truthful” – a quality, she emphasized, that was critical after the lies of the Bush Administration. (I take it from her recent interviews that she tried to word her statements so they weren’t false – so, for example, John was ‘completely truthful” about issues. Okay.)
She was not making good decisions then, and she didn’t make one last week when she exposed herself, her home, and her dutifully smiling children, to Oprah’s traveling circus. (John, who could hardly leave, was there as well.) ‘What did you know, and when did you know it?” Oprah asked.
To which Elizabeth responded with resilience of the too-anxious kind that comes when you’re still reeling. It was painful to watch.
If ‘Resilience” is opaque about the ’08 presidential campaign, however, it is revelatory when read against the rise and fall of the Edwards’ political fortunes that unfolded right before our eyes. What comes through is how these two very human folksthis is Elizabeth’s story, but it’s not hard to read John’s in the shroudinvented for themselves and were later captured by and lost to a delusion that they were destined for greatness, and that the world needed them to fulfill their destiny.
It’s a story that Elizabeth begins with, and at each turn of her fortunes returns to, Wade’s death. From his journal when he was 15, she quotes a passage about his aspirations and fears of not being deserving that ends with this: ‘I really want to do something great with my life.” A year later, Wade was dead, killed in an auto accident for which it seemed there was no cause. It was windy. He overcorrected. He flipped. And Elizabeth, busy mom, volunteer, wife, was never the same.
Elizabeth acknowledges living through Wade before and long after his death, clinging fast to a disappearing sense of herself until John’s affair finally shattered what was left of her idyll. Only then did she accept ‘[that] my past is not perhaps what I thought it was, and my future is certainly not what I dreamed.”
She was by measures depressed, disoriented, self-doubting and determined to recover what was lost, which to her — from Wade’s death on — was all: ‘The fall,” she writes, ‘is much farther if you think you have fallen all the way from heaven.”
And John? He’s in her story as her rock, partner in everything and a good man who strayed for reasons sheand, she says, hedoesn’t know.
But let’s remember what we do know.
John Edwards was a smart, personable and hard-working trial lawyer when he lived in Raleigh, good on his feet and excellent at taking the risksthe financial risks that come with preparing a high-stakes tort casethat may or may not pay off when the jury returns.
For John, the risks paid great, and he made millions of dollars for himself, which is kind of odd when you consider how we deal with injured people in America, but John didn’t invent our capitalist tort system, he was just damned good at it.
He was not, however, qualified to be a U.S. senator when he threw his hat into the ’98 Democratic primary. Nor, having won the Senate seat, was he qualified to be president when he launched his first bid in 2002.
By not qualified, I don’t mean he wasn’t intelligent enough to do the jobat least the Senate job. But his understanding of government (unlike torts) was sketchy at best, one indication of which was that he hadn’t even been a consistent voter prior to ’98. More important, he wasn’t tested one bit as to his ability to cope with the realities of public office and the adulation, pressures, and disconnection from family, friends and anchors in your life that come the higher you rise.
Would, for instance, his small-town head be turned by contact with the filthy richthe hedge-fund crowd, say, that will pay you a ‘salary” just for being their guy?
Would it be turned by a major-league charmer like Rielle Hunter, with her cameras and New York City know-how?
(And if affairs there be, would he have the sense to conduct them with women not portrayed, as Hunter was, in a salacious novel by Jay McInerney?)
John’s head got so turned, he didn’t have a clue how far over his head he was.
Nor, unfortunately, did we.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, seemed totally committed to the idea that John was more than a mere mortal, more than a skilled lawyer, more even than a very lucky man. As the years went by and John wasn’t elected in ’04, and after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, he began a second campaign in 2006, her commitment didn’t waver, and finally took on the trappings of a mission.
In the course of a single decade, the Edwards entered politics, had two more children when Elizabeth was 48 and 50, sold their home in Raleigh and bounced from one giant new house to another to one, finally, of outsized proportions in Chapel Hill, and gradually they lost their bearings.
Part of this, I blame on our crazy and corrupting political system, if you can call it that. In what sane country would a person be taken seriously for the highest office who has never been a party leader or responsible for any government program? What sane country would expect, or allow, someone who seeks the highest office to campaign for it non-stop for six years, pitching the same speech in Elks halls day after day, and the same woo to wealthy donors night after night? Wouldn’t it be obvious that at some point he’s going to forget who the hell he ever was and what was real?
And in what sane country would we expect that man’s wife, having lost a son to a car crash and facing the imminent prospect of her own death, to be the bedrock he’d need against such insanity?
When, in 2007, the Edwards announced in Chapel Hill that John was staying in the race though Elizabeth’s cancer had returned, many of us said, yes, of course, keep up the good fight.
But the right question wasn’t whether to stay in or drop out. It was whether, after too long on the campaign trail, and too many hard hits, John should’ve been running in the first place. He, for one, obviously knew that the answer was no — because of Hunter. Elizabeth, at some level, knew it too. But, she writes, ‘We pressed ahead.”
Their bad. But ours, too, those of us who were cheering them on. We didn’t know about Hunter yet, but we should’ve known that, without any grounding in big-time politics, even the most solid of our homeboys and girls are in grave danger the longer they’re out on the limb of a presidential campaign.
As we read ‘Resilience,” we should recall what we knew, and when we knew it, about John’s hedge-fund ties, the giant houses, and the idea that fighting povertyor was it health-care reform? Same thing?was the abiding purpose of John’s life. Were we OK with the Senate race? The ’04 campaign? ’08?
The truth is, we let John and Elizabeth go out of that limb when they weren’t nearly steady enough to be on it. And we left them out there long after it was obvious that they didn’t know where they were or how to get back. There’s resilience, after all. But there’s also facing up. As “Resilience” says finally, the two aren’t at odds, they’re the critical halves of a healthy whole.