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05.06.09

Elizabeth Edwards the Hypocrite

Whatever Elizabeth Edwards tells Oprah, she was her husband's co-conspirator in his reckless pursuit of power, and now she's cashing out on the whole sorry spectacle.

Xtra Insight: Watch Elizabeth 's much-anticipated Oprah appearance.

Among modern sacrileges, those topping the list include: (1) visiting Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine and asking, “Who painted it?” Or, slightly worse, (2) questioning Elizabeth Edwards’ motives.

Hillary Clinton accomplished the first when she viewed the Virgin Mary’s image, said to have been miraculously imprinted on the cloak of one St. Juan Diego in 1531, prompting the rector of the basilica to respond: “God!”

Elizabeth’s formidable, brave presence on the campaign trail was John’s armor. Family unity? Or conspiracy to commit public fraud?

Others are tiptoeing around the second item, as Elizabeth launches the latest book in her oeuvre of misfortune: Resilience.

I’ll say.

Having once mocked John Edwards’ vanity just when his wife’s cancer returned, it seems fitting that I chime in now. But first, a word of clarification: I did not mock Edwards’ hair when Elizabeth found out about her cancer; I wrote a column about John’s narcissism, predicting his political demise, that just happened to run in most newspapers on the day the Edwardses decided to go public about the cancer’s resurgence.

It was a case of unfortunate timing rather than malice. That said, it can’t be argued that I was stark raving mad.

Little did we know at the time that the man who built a populist campaign excavating houses from Katrina’s muck—while his own 28,000-square-foot teepee was under construction—was also managing an affair. Who says men can’t multitask?

At least, we didn’t know, though Elizabeth did.

This feast of human frailty would be a private affair, if only it were. Today, Elizabeth hits The Oprah Winfrey Show and appears in the June issue of Oprah’s O Magazine. Time magazine is running an excerpt of the book. And the blogosphere is abuzz with twitter. Or is that atwitter with buzz?

What fun this must be for John. I picture him wearing a hairshirt, walking the long, empty corridors of home and chanting: “Hail Elizabeth, full of grace, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, not whatshername’s.”

As for Elizabeth, well, a book tour is designed to sell books, isn’t it? And nothing sells like the sordid mess of a fallen man, another woman, and a love-baby born in the midst of a presidential campaign. In her Oprah interview, Elizabeth says she has no idea who the father is. “It doesn’t look like my children.” Perhaps not, but, alas, the baby does bear a striking resemblance to her husband.

Might we pause here to ponder what kind of person refers to a one-year-old baby girl as “it?” While you chew on that, let’s shed our guilt and keep in mind that Elizabeth Edwards is the one who reopened this door.

Every woman in America has tried to put herself in Elizabeth’s shoes. “What would I have done?” we ask ourselves. We feel for her in the way all women feel for any other who has (a) lost a child; (b) cancer; (c) a philandering husband. Elizabeth has borne all three with what appears to be remarkable valor.

Victimhood is a reliable insulator against criticism, but something doesn’t feel quite right about this tell-all. Is this how John earns forgiveness, by letting Oprah into his home so the whole world can see what a rich, duplicitous schmuck he is? Is this how couples protect their children from further emotional scarring?

Two points leap out from the back-story of Resilience:

First, Elizabeth was an integral part of her husband’s campaign and knew of the affair, about which both later dissembled. She may have an overburdened heart, but part of that load surely is her own ambition. Although Elizabeth claims to have asked her husband not to run after he told her of the affair, is it really credible that he did it anyway, without her consent? Or that he talked her into it against her will?

Second, Elizabeth is blaming The Other Woman—Rielle Hunter—instead of the man with whom she had a marital covenant. She tells Oprah that “this woman spotted him in the hotel in which he was staying.... She said to him ‘You are so hot.’”

As though John Edwards needed telling. He’d just been telling his mirror the same thing moments before.

We’re culturally programmed to despise the harlot who brings the good man down. Old habits die hard. If one needs to assign blame elsewhere in order to forgive one’s best interest, well then, that’s something else and we understand that, too. But wise women know that the world’s Elizabeths owe the world’s Hunters a thank-you note.

Meanwhile, it must be recognized that Elizabeth’s first priority was helping her husband get to the White House. Her formidable, brave presence on the campaign trail was John’s armor. As long as she was there, his innocence was assumed. Family unity? Or conspiracy to commit public fraud?

The couple had at least three opportunities to scuttle the campaign with integrity and minimize the likelihood of public disgrace: (1) in October 2006, when former campaign manager Peter Scher confronted John about rumors of an affair; (2) a few days later, when John confessed to Elizabeth; (3) five months later, when Elizabeth’s cancer flared. Elizabeth now says, “He should not have run.” Then why did he? And why did she enable him?

At the time, I remember thinking: What kind of man runs for president when his wife is terminally ill and they have two small children? I also remember thinking that maybe Elizabeth could imagine dying with fewer cares if she can deposit her husband and children in the White House. A mother’s ambition for her children’s future, especially in her absence, is more easily understood.

Whatever her motives then and now, one can conclude that any decisions made to continue aiming for the presidency in the midst of so much family turmoil were the result of blind ambition. And any decisions to persevere have to be viewed as having been jointly made.

Whether anyone still cares will be reflected by book sales, the proceeds of which undoubtedly will help ease whatever burdens remain.

Xtra Insight: Watch Elizabeth 's much-anticipated Oprah appearance.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of Save the Males.