Leave Elizabeth Alone

John Edwards’ wife was an American saint, coping with infidelity in the face of cancer—until new accounts painted her as a monster. Lee Siegel on why we misread her, and should leave her in peace.

No matter how sophisticated we seem to get about social stereotypes, we fall right back into them as soon as their pleasure beckons. Elizabeth Edwards was a “saint.” Now she’s a monstrous bitch. That’s how high-status women have been perceived for as long as anyone can remember. You’ve come no distance at all, baby.

Our latest cartoonish harridan is neither saint nor monster. From what I can see—and I’m looking at the same gossipy hearsay, anonymous reporting, and axe-grinding sources that everyone else is—Elizabeth is a profoundly human figure, full of bitter pathos and rage and passion. But although we might gripe about scripted self-presentation, public manipulation, and expert spin, as soon as we encounter real feeling and real flesh, we cannot control our horrified contempt.

Anyone who thinks this qualifies Elizabeth as a monster, rather than simply an unhappy wife, has never been in a relationship, read a serious novel, or watched HBO.

More Juicy Election Details from Game Change It’s easy to understand the backlash against Elizabeth. She seems to have put one over on us. For years, we thought of her as a grieving mother, then as a brave, dignified cancer survivor. Not even her appearance on Oprah last May, in which she deftly stuck the knife into her husband again and again, was enough to turn the public against her—though some people justifiably asked why a woman with terminal cancer was spending her dwindling mortal hours inflating her drama and wreaking revenge on her husband. (Possible answer, and to quote from Godard’s Breathless: in order to become immortal and then die. How many people, terminally ill and publicly humiliated, would not wish to solicit the world’s sympathy, to escape into the camera as if into another type of future?)

Surrounded by hucksters, and having to learn how to do a little huckstering ourselves to survive, we are extra-unforgiving when think we’ve been had. And if the con man is, in this case, a woman who uses illness and her status as a victim humiliated by her husband… well! How dare she transgress against the sacred appeal of extreme physical and mental pain? Now that her sham has been found out, we have to harden ourselves against her in order to prove our sophistication, so as not to be taken in again.

Unfortunately, in the process of recovering our sophistication about the way the world works, we are not really very sophisticated. The sections about the Edwards’ marriage in Game Change, the new tell-all book about the 2008 presidential campaign by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, are so naïve about human nature as to make the naïvete appear cynically orchestrated. Edwards’ political aides were so mistreated by Elizabeth that they “felt like battered spouses.” As for the way she dealt with John: “She would be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive.” It got so bad that when someone asked Elizabeth “if John had read a certain book, Elizabeth burst out laughing. ‘Oh, he doesn’t read books,’ she said. “I’m the one who reads books.’” Anyone who thinks this qualifies Elizabeth as a monster, rather than simply an unhappy wife, has never been in a relationship, read a serious novel, or watched HBO. As for the hyperbolic “battered spouses,” we’re never told anything about just how these poor (hungry, ambitious, calculating themselves, perhaps?) political aides were abused.

According to the book, Elizabeth called John’s campaign manager an idiot. Maybe he was. She accused David Axelrod of lying to her. Maybe he did. At one point during the 2004 presidential race, she “snarled” at the people who were scheduling her appearances: “Why the fuck do you think I’d want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?” Well, why the fuck would she? Halperin and Heilemann are veteran political reporters. Surely they know that such language and tantrums are as common in political campaigns as their opposite: sheer, calculated niceness.

Then there is this odd sentence: “Elizabeth’s illness seemed at first to mellow her in the early months of 2008—but not for long.” Mellow her? How does learning that one has terminal cancer make one mellow? The authors then go on to tell a horror story about Elizabeth’s temper, the implication being that she erupted the way she did not because she was dying, but because she had forgotten how calm one should be while dying. And what was the horror story? When Elizabeth found out that aides had not obtained health-care coverage for her and John, “she flew into a rage” on a conference call, threatening to cut off everyone else’s coverage until she and John got theirs. As with similar passages, the authors never tell us what she said that was so mortifying to the “40 or 50 people on the line, mostly kids in their twenties.” What is clear is that she never humiliated anyone, singled anyone out, trampled on anyone’s dignity. Most likely, the “kids” laughed it off (what an asshole) and went back to their lives. But Elizabeth’s despairing outburst now qualifies her as a monster.

I don’t like people who shout at other people or berate them, especially when the beraters have wealth and power, and I’m not about to defend Elizabeth’s behavior. But it is appalling to tear her out of her context and turn on her now because we idealized her before. Just because her dead child and her terminal illness once moved us doesn’t mean, now that we are disenchanted, that we can blithely dismiss grief and despair as elemental forces in her life. By the time Halperin and Heilemann describe her fighting with her treacherous husband in an airport terminal—the word itself a sad irony—showing him her mastectomy scars and then staggering, “nearly falling to the ground,” you want to turn your eyes away from such raw private pain.

A friend of mine once said that the only two people who know what’s going on between a man and a woman are the man and the woman themselves. He was half right. The man and the woman—or man and man, woman and woman; it’s all the same—are the last to know. The idea that we can precisely fathom people’s emotions and motives is absurd. We can barely comprehend our own. Maybe pretending that we understand what makes our political figures tick is how we console ourselves for not understanding our politics at all.

Here’s my stab at a counter-narrative. The death of their oldest son in 1996, when he was about 17, changed the Edwards’ lives. They blamed themselves; they blamed each other. Politics kept them together; politics drove them apart. The more John triumphed, the further he drifted away from Elizabeth. His triumphs made Elizabeth satisfied; they also made her desperate. Her cancer brought death back into their lives. He grew distant; she became enraged. He found a new image of himself, a new woman who bought it, and started a new life with her, free of death: his son’s, his wife’s. Elizabeth kept him with her to console herself with an imaginary future, and to punish him. The lying, the delusion, the denial—they were all honest falsehoods pouring out of real emotions. John’s self-destruction was how he almost consciously paid himself back for his delusions. (The thing he most wanted was for splendid John Edwards to be president; the last thing he wanted was for inadequate, shameful John Edwards to win anything.) Elizabeth’s destructiveness toward the campaign was how she paid John and his supporters back for having no choice but to cling to his illusions along with him.

It all turned to shit. They didn’t hurt anyone but themselves. Why do we hate them?

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Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.