Elizabeth Edwards and the Case Against the Political Wife

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If the Clintons were not so often a low-rent version of themselves, it would be easy to think of John and Elizabeth Edwards as a tier-two, B-movie Bill and Hillary. The Edwardses were the University of North Carolina instead of Yale, and a failed quest for the vice presidency instead of a twice-successful run for the top job--but otherwise the story is the same: quixotic young apple-cheeked attorneys who meet at law school, and with the best intentions--and worst peccadilloes--they go forth and enter public life as a very pretty political power couple, a clever woman and a charismatic man. They could've been a contender.
 
The Edwardses, of course, publicly unraveled, with a little help from The National Enquirer, in that slow-motion, revelation-a-day sort of way that's the mass media equivalent of open-heart surgery without anesthesia. During the season of Rielle Hunter, one can imagine Elizabeth Edwards tiptoing toward the morning paper, just telling herself that this won't hurt a bit--or maybe only a little. By the shameful end, it was obvious that the Edwardses lacked the savvy, resilience, and dumb luck that have kept the Clintons successfully in the moonshine business of politics.
 
Despite impeachment and a lawsuit that got all the way to the Supreme Court, the Kryptonite Clintons have worked through it all, and seem to be living happily ever after. Compare that to the Edwardses' bellyflop into tar-heel muck. If one uses the Edwards as a counterfactual, it should be obvious that Bill and Hillary Clinton have either God or the Devil on their side.
 
And then, a few days ago, Elizabeth Anania Edwards, age 61, died of breast cancer. On cue came the inevitable encomia, because the life and death of a public figure has such a predictable, obligatory script these days. But really, was it worth being John Edwards' enabler-in-chief for it all to end this way?
 
One must assume that had it all not gone so wrong, had she lived longer, Elizabeth Edwards might be a senator from North Carolina some day, and after that, who knows? Alas ... As it is, Mrs. Edwards' private loss and public humiliation at the hands of her husband will be in vain if the obvious lesson isn't before us: There is no profit in being the woman behind the man. We can admire Elizabeth Edwards' graceful acceptance of disease and disharmony, or we can see her as another wronged political wife. And, really, is there any other kind? The job has produced so much matrimonial roadkill--and given us so many sideshow wonders, from gun moll Judith Exner to bombshell Gennifer Flowers, from the Mayflower Madam to the Jersey-girl Ashley Dupré--that it's amazing there are still women willing to walk the gauntlet.
 
By the time Elizabeth met John, she had already gotten started on a PhD in English before abandoning literature for law. Even after the Edwards were wed, Elizabeth worked at white-shoe law firms in Nashville, in the attorney general's office in Chapel Hill--and, of course, like the best and the brightest of new JDs, Elizabeth had even clerked for a federal judge. Believe it or not, she was even known as Elizabeth Anania until as recently as 1996, the last year that Elizabeth logged in billable hours as an attorney in private practice. The baffling part of the story is not the Rodhamite tendencies, but rather that something suddenly changed. It probably wasn't Elizabeth Edwards herself that made the transformation--in 2004, she actually described life on the campaign trail playing the spousal pom-pom girl as a "derivative existence." So she knew.
 
She knew that making your marriage into your career is ridiculous. But she went along with the whole thing anyway.
 
Why do women do this to themselves? Apparently hormones make us forget the pain of childbirth so that we will go through pregnancy and bring life again. But I cannot imagine what unfathomable elixir makes political wives continue to do what they do no matter how many painfully public object lessons come before. Are we all so stupid as to think we're so smart that the way it went for everyone else is not the way it'll be this time? Do we think that Silda Spitzer is not quite as clever as we are, even if she did go to Harvard Law School--and my political animal of a husband is not going to need me on his arm at a midday quickie press conference where he comes clean to constituents and says the only thing he regrets is the harm this has done to his family--as if it were caused by Hurricane Katrina or Noah's Flood, and not, well, by him?
 
In the last few years, Elizabeth Edwards opened a furniture store in Chapel Hill, spoke out about healthcare for all, and did this and that while that and this went on. Her life was hardly a waste--Elizabeth Edwards inspired many people, and perhaps that when all was said and done, her relationship with John was more good than not. And so, one political wife passes away, but somewhere right now, another one is busy being born, because every woman is sure the glass slipper will finally fit her dainty foot. The poem "Cinderella," written by Olga Broumas in 1977, ends with the more likely plea: "I swear / I'll die young / like those favored before me, hand- / picked each one / For her joyful heart."
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