we are all elizabeth edwards

Elizabeth_edwards_nhGood for Hofstra University for telling the Associated Press yesterday that they still expect Elizabeth Edwards to speak there next month, as a start to the school’s fall lecture series. Even if she does have to bring the husband who famously admitted last week on Nightline that after her cancer went into remission, he got involved with a New Age blonde who’d already told Newsweek that Edwards was an “old soul” who could change the world, “If he could only tap into his heart more, and use his head less.”

Thanks to the National Enquirer, we are all painfully aware that Edwards’ heart was not the only part of his anatomy that interested Hunter, who went on to work for the campaign making “webisodes” and also became involved with Edwards fundraiser Andrew Young. And for at least this midlife woman, when the Enquirer broke that story last year, it also broke our hearts.

Not because of John, whose politics you can choose to find appealing or not. But because of Elizabeth, the unflinching cancer survivor who had just told the world that her cancer’s recurrence should not prevent her husband’s presidential campaign from going forward. As Sarah Hepola said last week on Salon.com, in a discussion among Broadsheet contributors worth reading in full:

I believed deeply in the Elizabeth-John love story, even as I distrusted Edwards as a politician (shifty trial lawyer that he seemed to be). When the Enquirer story broke, I shot back at others’ knee-jerk judgments, choosing to believe that a couple staring down a bleak future, wrestling with a grim prognosis (a couple who knows the agony of losing a son, no less), might make an unconventional sexual arrangement. And yet, what strikes me about today’s revelation is how conventional it seems to be: just another hotel bump-and-grind, another thirsty ego desperate to be slaked.

The first question, for many of us, upon hearing about Edwards’ infidelity was: does Elizabeth know? And if so, why is it anyone’s business but theirs? The first question was answered by Elizabeth herself, the day of the Nightline interview:

John made a terrible mistake in 2006.  The fact that it is a mistake that many others have made before him did not make it any easier for me to hear when he told me what he had done. But he did tell me. And we began a long and painful process in 2006, a process oddly made somewhat easier with my diagnosis in March of 2007.  This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well.

Yesterday, we learned from her family what most of us guessed last year: that she made exactly the sort of agonized choice to save her marriage that many of us have done, in her case exacerbated by her cancer.

“She couldn’t say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll work through this for years, or maybe we should separate for two years,'” said Hargrave McElroy, a friend, told the magazine for its Aug. 25 issue. “(The cancer) forced her to choose whether to move forward.”….

Edwards has said he both ended the affair and told Elizabeth about his infidelity in 2006. He kicked off his second bid for the White House in New Orleans a few days after Christmas, at an event that Hunter attended and Elizabeth did not.

But Elizabeth was out campaigning soon thereafter, and continued to do so after the couple disclosed in March that her breast cancer has spread to her bone and could not be cured. In July of that year, the Edwards renewed their vows to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in the presence of a small group of friends and family, including their three children.

“There was anguish — excruciating anguish — for her in dealing with this,” McElroy said. “She was angry and furious and everything, but at one point she had to make a choice: Do I kick him out, or do we have a 30-year marriage that can be rebuilt.”

Perhaps too much has been said about the levels of self-delusion required to think that such privacy was possible, 24 years after Gary Hart’s campaign was torpedoed by photos of his fling with Donna Rice. I’ll leave such issues to the likes of male pundits, from the disappointed Walter Shapiro on the left to the never-disappointing Rush Limbaugh to the right. And not having had the privilege of interviewing her, like many of the journos talking about it last week on Washingtonpost.com, I can only ponder why, with that first question answered, it still felt like the answer to the second was still that I needed to care.

It’s because many of us, from across the political spectrum, applauded as the couple renewed their wedding vows in their backyard. Melinda Henneburger, who profiled the couple in a 2005 Slate piece, wailed the week the story broke in “Just a Couple More Questions for John Edwards“:

Was all this going on when you renewed your wedding vows last summer at that intimate backyard ceremony where you wrote your own vows and there was not a dry eye in the house? (The one your wife of 30 years lost weight for, because she wanted to look pretty for you and fit into her wedding dress?)

Full disclosure: I’m not a cancer survivor, but I’ve been dancing with a chronic illness (multiple sclerosis) since 1984, and think it played a subtle role in the collapse of my much-shorter marriage a few years later. More recently, when asked how my partner of 11 years and I have stayed together, I’ve told friends that “The first thing you do at the sign of trouble is to STOP looking for the exit door.” All of which may influence how I respond to the question about the wedding,given the rest of what we now know.  I can only admire both parties trying to salvage something they’d organized their lives around. And even her quixotic, it seems, decision to continue the campaign may have felt like something close to her core: the natural next step in a series of decisions that began when the far-more-political Elizabeth agreed with  the”pretty boy” she married in 1986 that he, not she, was best suited to pursue elected office.

Having spent hundreds of words talking about it, I’m no longer in a position to say that we shouldn’t be thinking about Edwards’ involvement with Rielle Hunter (which he said, incorrectly, was  a departure from “that North Carolina boy from the mill town.” Begging your pardon, sir, but who else would have stayed a minute with a crystal-wielding girl he meets in a bar, whose thinking smacks of Scientology?) And I won’t even insist that equal time be given to Carol McCain, whose husband John tossed her after she no longer looked like a swimsuit model after her car accident. Because he could.

Still, I think the title works. We all could be Elizabeth: we all could see something we’ve fought for splintered in a second, because of others’ stupidity or our own. As midlife women, we curse what our bodies can no longer do or be or look like, even as we celebrate the power of this new stage. And we can work as hard as we can to defend Elizabeth’s, and Carol’s, right to privacy as the political scene begins rightly to focus on issues bigger than all of us.

(Cross-posted at Women’s Voices for Change. Though without the Scientology reference, likely for legal reasons…)

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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