a kaddish for elizabeth edwards

I’m not sure what to think, exactly, about Elizabeth Edwards. During her dozen years on the national stage, I’ve seen a woman with many faces. I’ve read enough conflicting accounts of her to wish I could have asked, “Would the real Elizabeth Edwards please stand up?”

Of a few things we can be certain.

She was one hell of a smart woman, and she was sincere in her political beliefs. When she phoned in to radio programs or wrote op-eds, we saw someone who was articulate and passionate, who understood the issues perhaps better than her husband did, and who made a decidedly better case for her position than most of the politicians who were actually running.

I’m working from the same sources that anyone with Google can find, and I’ve read several of the books about the 2004 and 2008 elections. I have not her own books.

I have an additional source : a former colleague of mine mentioned at lunch during the 2008 primary season that she knew Elizabeth Edwards. They were neighbors. I think they’d also gone to law school together. My colleague didn’t say much, but she was quite firm about what she did say: “She’s a very gracious woman.” I asked about her husband and didn’t get much of a reply, and then she reiterated that Elizabeth Edwards had a lot of class.

I also know that his fellow North Carolinians weren’t too thrilled with John Edwards.

I used to work for SAS, a company headquartered in North Carolina, which is why I was in a Raleigh-area hotel room watching election returns the night in 1998 that John Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate. It was the first I’d ever heard of him, but the profiles I saw on the news that night were encouraging. He seemed to be a progressive with the kinds of priorities that I care about, and he was handsome enough to look like he had a promising future in retail politics. The next day at work, of course, people were chatting about the elections, and I was surprised that none of my left-leaning colleagues seemed very excited about his win. The most I heard was, “well, at least he’s a Democrat.” I was puzzled by this.

In 2004 when he was running for President and then Vice-President, it was the same: my left-leaning friends from North Carolina seemed reluctant about him. In 2008, when he was again running for President, most had gone from being reluctant to actively detesting him. When I asked why, I got variations on a theme: he seems insincere, if he’s so concerned about poverty why does he need a ginormous mansion, he’s a slimy lawyer, and one I hadn’t heard before: “that son of a millworker thing? It’s a crock. Yeah, his dad worked in a mill, but they weren’t poor. There’s millworkers and there’s millworkers. His dad did okay.”

When I asked about Elizabeth Edwards, people didn’t have as much to say. Some seemed to wish she were the one running, as I did, a few thought she was too liberal, and most didn’t have much of an opinion.

I came away from reading Game Change with a sense that what I’d read was probably mostly true but often overstated for the sake of book sales. Game Change levels devastating charges on Elizabeth Edwards of being not the saint with cancer but the bitch on wheels who was not only selfish and shrill but also incredibly tone deaf—which strikes me as unlikely, given the subtle pitch-accuity she always displayed when advocating for her husband’s politics or when tactfully describing where hers differed from his. The authors seem personally affronted by the degree to which (they claim) the Elizabeth behind the scenes gave the lie to her saint-with-cancer public persona, and their own writing comes across as at least as shrill as the bitch they portray. They made her sound purely unpleasant and without redeeming moral value.

About her unfaithful husband, though, they manage to maintain a calm, reasonable voice as they detail one after another of the lies John both told and lived. Readers of the book will come away with a sense that he was a sincere guy with good politics who had a few inconvenient personal shortcomings.

Sounds sort of like Bill, eh?

And she sounds a bit like Hillary, doesn’t she? Shrill? Bitchy? Selfish? Without redeeming moral value?

Even though he was the cheat? Even though he was the one with the flashy career full of personal rewards and she was the one working in public service?

So you’ll pardon me if I’m just a tiny bit skeptical about the charges that Elizabeth Edwards was a shrill, tone-deaf, self-serving bitch on wheels. I think that’s the narrative that the boys writing about politics and other sports find reassuring, especially when covering an election where the most experienced and credible Democratic candidate is a woman, the next most credible candidate is a man whose wife seems smarter and more appealing, and the guy who’s in the third place is married to someone smarter and more articulate, who is willing to support her husband’s campaign even while she’s dying, because on some level she seems to believe he’d do the country some good despite his evident failings.

I don’t think it was about reality, truth, or facts. I think it was about gender. Those boys needed to put Hillary, Michelle, and Elizabeth in their places, and the easiest way to do that was by calling them shrill. Clearly from all the column inches devoted to her, they were a lot more comfortable writing about Sarah Palin, who had the decency to be pretty and entertaining, but more importantly to meet their expectations by being ridiculous.

All of that is why I’m choosing to assume that my colleague was right when she said Elizabeth Edwards was gracious, a class act. I’m also taking her career and what I heard and read from her as evidence that she was smart, articulate, and passionate about progressive politics and doing good in the world. If she was occasionally a mite tetchy, I’m going to cut her some slack. She had breast cancer, was dying, must have felt like crap a lot of the time, and had just learned that her husband wasn’t letting any of that stop him from enjoying everything he deserved on the campaign trail.

He has a lot to answer for.

She seems to have been a good woman, who worked hard at things she believed in, and who managed for a long time to hold her marriage together despite the extraordinary strains he placed on it.

Gracious. A class act.

Hard to know. More complex than any accounts of her reflected. I don’t entirely know what to make of her. Nobody seems to.

But what I keep coming around to is this: the real tragedy is that he was the one who was running for president, and she is the one whose admirable biography was a footnote in her own obituary.

May she rest in peace.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…
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3 Responses to a kaddish for elizabeth edwards

  1. mira says:

    Agreed — we should know more about Elizabeth Edwards in her own right.
    Agreed — the word ‘shrill’ is not gender neutral, the way, say ‘vocal’ is.
    Agreed — the wrong spouse here was likely the candidate.
    Agreed — many gracious, smart, competent, progressive women have (and keep) what others consider to be slime-ball husbands.

    However. The sex thing? Here, I beg to differ.

    I have two thoughts on this. The first is, maybe this was consensual. I mean, how many women with cancer do you know who are really up for sex with their partner while going through chemo and/or radiation, and/or surgery? How many men do you know whose libido dampens prn? She may well have been thanking her lucky stars that he found some other outlets in this regard. Second thought: Is this really any of our business?

    Kol ha-kavod, Mary Elizabeth Anania Edwards.

    • erin says:

      Thank you for naming her in full, Mira.

      About the sex thing, I wonder if you’re being scary again and commenting on the paragraphs about infidelity that don’t actually appear above—the paragraphs I attempted to write, cut, rewrote, cut again, rewrote again, and finally left out.

      So let’s put some of that text on the table for everybody else:

      I speculated that he’d probably been a cheat for a long time but had had the decency to be discreet about it, and she had made her peace with it for reasons only she needed to understand. And you’re right; he might well have had her blessing.

      I pointed out that 41% of all marriages involve admitted infidelity by at least one spouse, and i imagine a good share more have unadmitted infidelity. Just under 60% of all people have committed infidelity during their lives, a bit higher for men and a bit lower for women. Even higher numbers, around 70% plus and minus, say they would have an affair if they could be sure their spouses would never find out. From all these statistics, I conclude that pretty much everyone has experienced some infidelity in the not-so-extended family; perhaps everyone doth protest too much when someone else gets caught.

      I made a couple more attempts to address the elephant placed in the room—”by whom?,” we ought to ask—and finally cut all these paragraphs, because ultimately, no, it wasn’t any of our business.

      I did, however, leave in what I thought was a perfectly reasonable explanation for whatever episodes of “bitch on wheels” Elizabeth Edwards might have displayed behind the scenes: she was dying, she felt like crap, and her husband was by all accounts having a grand old time on the campaign trail. We needn’t cling to the popular narrative about his sexual affairs, though; it’s enough that he was a narcissist in his glory, enjoying the adulation and pampering; whereas she by all accounts was working hard behind the scenes, plowing through briefing books, writing talking points, vetting position papers, and managing countless unglamorous details of his campaign, her cancer treatment, and their household.

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