Elizabeth Edwards

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This is predictable to say, but I will say it: I am very sad to hear of Elizabeth Edwards's death, six years after she was diagnosed with cancer while in her mid-50s. Her untimely illness was the third great tragedy of her lifetime, and it is a sign of her toughness and character that she went so far toward overcoming the other two.

The first was of course the death of her teenaged son Wade, in a car crash in 1996. Any parent views the death of a child as the worst possible calamity; often the grief and strain are too great for the parents' marriage to endure. To all appearances Elizabeth and John Edwards dealt with this loss as bravely as possible, reinventing their personal and professional roles and appearing to re-commit themselves to a recreated family, with the children Elizabeth bore at ages 48 and 50. The second tragedy was the unfolding revelation of her husband's true craven nature. I am sure she would have surmounted that, with a new writing and speaking career, or perhaps by entering politics in her own name, if she had not grown sick at the same time.

Fairness to Elizabeth Edwards is seeing her apart from these burdens -- as a sophisticated thinker and political actor, rather than a tragically fated figure. That's hard, but easier for me as I remember one extended performance I saw.

Nearly seven years ago, during the New Hampshire primary campaigns of the 2004 election, the Atlantic hosted a dinner for politicians and strategists in Manchester. At the time John Edwards was fighting hard against John Kerry, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and the others. The dinner had a lot of genuine big-shots who were used to listening to themselves and having their views sought. Two of the TV network news anchors; other journalistic big-foot types; some academics, plus several candidates' campaign managers; and Mitt Romney, then the sitting governor of Massachusetts, there to represent the GOP.

The longer the evening went on, the more people kept deferring to and asking questions of Elizabeth Edwards. By the end, it was like a seminar that she was conducting for the rest. She was talking mainly not about her husband's campaign but about her assessment of the larger shape of the presidential race. Where Bush and Cheney would be most vulnerable in the general election; what Karl Rove had figured out; how the New Hampshire results would position the Democrats for "mini-Tuesday" the next week and "super-Tuesday" a month later; how Democrats could talk about economic justice without sounding like big-government spendthrifts; what to say and do about Iraq.There was nothing "brave" or tragic about it, just someone who was intelligent, clear-eyed, and tough. I would like to remember that accomplished side of her.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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