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12.07.10

Elizabeth Edwards' Brave Message

The former presidential candidate’s wife passed away Tuesday afternoon at the age of 61. Jonathan Alter on how she lived—and the conversation he had with her about the cancer that eventually claimed her.

On Monday, a friend of the Edwards family called me from their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She said that Elizabeth Edwards wanted me to know that the doctors had stopped treatment and the end was very near. Elizabeth, whose condition began deteriorating rapidly in October, was in hospice and her family (including daughter Cate and estranged husband John) had been summoned home. I wasn’t a close friend. I hadn’t favored John Edwards for president in 2008. But I am a cancer survivor and in 2007 Elizabeth and I had bonded, as so many survivors do.

Cancer is a foreign country, a mere place on a scary map to those who haven’t lived there. I was lucky enough to return home. She wasn’t.

John F. Kennedy once famously remarked that “life is unfair.” It was true of his own family, of course, but also for the Edwardses, especially Elizabeth. After a happy childhood as a navy brat, a successful legal career, wealth and a family life before politics that she described as the happiest period of her life, she was rewarded in middle age with a triple-whammy—the death of a child, cancer and adultery.

When I first met Elizabeth in 2003, she was 53 and still beautiful. She was chasing her two young children, Emma Claire and Jack, around the office of the New Hampshire secretary of state, where John had gone with a pack of reporters in tow to register for the 2004 presidential primary.

Everyone who covered politics knew that the children, then ages 5 and 3, were the Edwards’ way of coping after the car accident that killed their 16-year-old son Wade in 1996. In that first national campaign, neither parent would speak of Wade publicly, a decision that the press respected. All they would talk about was the computer center for high school kids they founded in his name. Their quiet grief conveyed nobility. The Edwards legend grew.

Profiles of John Edwards in that period routinely quoted friends describing his exceptionally close relationship with his wife, whom he had met at the University of North Carolina School of Law. John Edwards later told me he was in awe of Elizabeth’s mind from the day he met her. She plotted (and often micromanaged) his political campaigns. Elizabeth was famously tough on the political help; she clashed with aides in 2004. But nothing that year even hinted at any trouble in the Edwards marriage.

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In a 2009 interview with Charlie Rose, Edwards spoke about overcoming the various challenges she has faced by finding the "sheer majesty of life."

Dr. Mona Ackerman: Why I’m Furious About ElizabethI didn’t get to know Elizabeth in 2004. On Super Tuesday, I was diagnosed with Stage Four non-Hodgkins lymphoma. By Election Day, I had been through a bone marrow transplant and was on the mend. Elizabeth was moving in the other direction. On the day after Kerry-Edwards lost to Bush-Cheney, Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. During the campaign she had ignored a lump that had grown to nine centimeters. She was treated, achieved remission and expected to put the whole nightmare behind her.

The culture kicked Elizabeth Edwards when she was already down. Now everyone is sad and sorry but it’s too late.

A year and a half later, in April of 2007, Edwards was leading in the polls in Iowa when Elizabeth cracked a rib and went to the doctor. It was then that she learned that the cancer had recurred in her bones.

When the Edwardses decided to continue the campaign anyway, many bloggers chastised Elizabeth for not spending whatever time was left at home with her children. As a survivor, I found this galling. Who were they to tell someone in our club how to react to a diagnosis? Cancer shouldn’t be a shield from criticism, but then—and later—I bristled at the relish with which she was attacked.

After reading my argument, Elizabeth welcomed me down to their sprawling house in Chapel Hill for an interview. Tony Snow, President Bush’s press secretary, had also suffered a recurrence that week. (He died of colon cancer in 2008.) It seemed the right time for a Newsweek cover story on cancer, and my editors convinced me to overcome my hesitation and recount my own experience, too.

When I arrived, Elizabeth told me that cancer had essentially freed her to say whatever the hell she wanted. Then she proved it, by questioning the one thing all presidential candidates and their spouses must embrace—religious faith:. “I’m not praying for God to save me from cancer. God will enlighten me when the time comes. And if I've done the right thing, I will be enlightened. And if I believe, I'll be saved. And that's all he promises me.” But did she believe? Here she went further than any public figure this side of Christopher Hitchens.

“I had to think about a God who would not save my son. Wade was—and I have lots of evidence; it's not just his mother saying it—a gentle and good boy. He reached out to people who were misfits and outcasts all the time. He could not stand for people to say nasty things about other people; he just didn't want it. For a 16-year-old boy, he was really extraordinary in this regard. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. You'd think that if God was going to protect somebody, he'd protect that boy. But not only did he not protect him, the wind blew him from the road. The hand of God blew him from the road. So I had to think, "What kind of God do I have that doesn't intervene—in fact, may even participate—in the death of this good boy?"

After the interview, we talked privately. I told her I thought her doctors were delivering a wrong—or at least incomplete--message in telling her that she was terminal. (“The cancer will inevitably kill me. It’s going to win this fight,” she had said in the interview). Their job, I argued, wasn’t to tell her the cancer was incurable but to say that they would do everything they could to keep her alive until a cure came along, as it did for Lance Armstrong’s testicular cancer (and, if present trends continue, for my lymphoma, now nearly seven years in remission). Doctors had no business extinguishing hope. This became a theme for her.

John Edwards’ big theme in 2008 was health-care reform, a passion for Elizabeth, who helped design his plan. It was so influential within the Democratic Party that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama rushed to match it. Without the Edwards campaign, it’s unlikely that enough momentum would have built to achieve passage of a bill this year. Not a bad legacy.

The scandal involving John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter broke only days after my wife and I had dinner with Elizabeth and her brother in New York. I thought much of the coverage was gratuitous; after all, John Edwards wasn’t even in politics anymore and his wife was sick. Couldn’t we give it a rest? But I was appalled enough—and chagrined enough by my own inability to see beneath the surface of things—that I made no effort to contact her. Not long after, she sent me a one-sentence email apologizing for letting me down. It was cryptic and sad.

Margaret Carlson: Elizabeth Edward' Final DaysElizabeth (not to mention her husband) had reason to apologize, especially to the scores of campaign workers who had uprooted their lives to work for Edwards. She had known of the affair before the cancer recurrence and should have taken that moment to make sure John withdrew from the race. Their decision to move forward anyway—a product of her fierce ambition as much as his own—was selfish and unfair to the millions of people committed to electing a Democratic president.

I later heard that the danger of nominating a candidate who could easily be blown out of the water in the fall campaign was perhaps not as great as it seemed. Had Edwards won Iowa, a few Edwards aides who knew of the affair were prepared to go public, destroying his chances. Or they might have chickened out.

Elizabeth handled the aftermath of the scandal badly. She used interviews for score-settling and wrote a second book with Too Much Information. It seems she knows this now. “There are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human,” she wrote on her Facebook page on Monday.

Americans love nothing more than to build up their politicians and other celebrities before ripping them to pieces. And so it bears repeating that these people are people, too. The culture kicked Elizabeth Edwards when she was already down. Now everyone is sad and sorry but it’s too late.

Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek correspondent, is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” which will appear next month in paperback.