As someone who supported John Edwards in the last Democratic presidential primaries, I have been increasingly horrified by the drip, drip, drip of information over the past two or three years that has revealed just how low the man sank as he grew closer to a real shot at the presidency. Unlike a lot of other Democrats I know, I totally bought John Edwards, hook, line and sinker; I thought he was who he said he was. Before things unraveled and the truth came out about the guy, I never saw Edwards as smarmy or insincere. Even things like the much-emailed You Tube video of the candidate Edwards endlessly flipping and fussing with his mop of carefully coiffed hair before a TV appearance didn’t put me off.
I liked the Edwards campaign’s focus on job creation, real health care reform and elimination of poverty. I liked the fact that Edwards was a self-made business success who came from very modest roots – the American dream realized. I liked the fact that he was from my region of the country. I even liked his classic North Carolina accent.
And like almost every other woman with whom I discussed the matter when Edwards was running in 2004 and again in 2008, I liked John Edwards’ wife. A lot. All candidates’ wives these days are portrayed by the campaigns behind their husbands as smart, funny and spunkily independent. But Elizabeth Edwards needed no spin from anybody else to make the case that she actually was (is) smart, funny and independent. She put herself out there, often without handlers, as a REAL blogger and a speaker and an author, and she did things that other smart, funny and independent women have only dreamed of being tough enough to do, like the time she gracefully yet thoroughly kicked Ann Coulter’s ass on live television.
And then there were the circumstances of Elizabeth Edwards’ life as a mother. Her oldest child died in a car accident when he was only 16. Then, less then 10 years later, she was diagonosed with a cancer that is likely to take her away from her two youngest children before she gets to see them grow out of teenagehood. As a mother of four children myself, I simply cannot imagine losing my teenage son in a car accident. And I cannot imagine facing the reality that my youngest children might lose me before they are old enough to care for themselves. But the idea of having BOTH of these tragedies befall me and my children is really just….it’s a whole different level of nightmare.
If either one of those things DID happen to me, I think I might just crumble, as so many parents do when tragedy of this magnitude befalls their families. But Elizabeth Edwards didn’t crumble; instead she did what motherhood calls us to do every day, which is get back up and put our own problems and hurts and disappointments to the side, and show our children what we’re made of, and thus, what they are capable of. Elizabeth Edwards did this, only she did it on a scale and with an energy that a lot of American women could only sit back and observe in awe. We didn’t admire Elizabeth Edwards because she was some kind of pity case; we admired her because she was a case study in personal and maternal strength.
And then, after the death of a child and the cancer, along came Rielle Hunter.
The odds that John Edwards had never before cheated on his wife are probably low. Many marriages that last more than a quarter century, as theirs had, struggle through difficult times, and who knows what took place in that marriage before Rielle Hunter set her sights on John Edwards. Whatever had happened, it remained a private matter between two people who were obviously, demonstrably committed for the long haul to one another and to the family they had created.
Rielle Hunter is a type. All of us are, I guess, but she’s a type that married women with children recognize. You see, there are women, like Rielle Hunter, who WILL consider seducing and sleeping with your husband and the father of your four children while you are undergoing treatment for cancer, and then… there are the rest of us. There is no doubt in my own mind that Rielle Hunter targeted John Edwards, enthusiastically embarked on the affair with him without remorse or concern for Mrs. Edwards and her children, and I believe that her pregnancy was no accident.
But that’s neither here nor there; John Edwards is, of course, far more culpable than Hunter is, as he was the one with the bonds and responsibilities that he betrayed in such a viciously grotesque way. He betrayed not only his wife and children, but the many trusting Americans who donated their money to his campaign and who cast their votes for him. I don’t know if he was always such a complete slimebag – maybe the combination of the loss of his son, his wife’s cancer and the pressures and pleasures of being in the national spotlight for 5 years straight combined to create a major personality transformation. But whether his behavior with regard to Rielle Hunter was brand new or part of a long pattern, it’s clear from details that continue to emerge that from the time he got involved with Hunter, he began actively behaving in a variety of sleazy, immoral and disgusting ways that go FAR beyond the arguably explainable scenario of, “I made a terrible mistake while under tremendous stress” or even an, “I’m sorry, but I’ve fallen in love with someone else” situation. He betrayed the trust of his supporters, cheated on his cancer-stricken wife, pulled his handlers into covering for his lies (thus ruining their lives), allegedly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money to Hunter, and eventually, denied his own baby daughter’s paternity on national television.
And that brings me back to Elizabeth Edwards. As John Edwards’ filth has become public in a steady stream of increasingly more disturbing information over the past nearly three years, she’s had to live with it in a way that no one else did. We now know that for some months before he dropped out of the primaries, she knew to some degree that he had become involved with Rielle Hunter. So even as she had to get out there and stump for her husband’s campaign – something into which she had devoted the previous five years of her life – WHILE SUFFERING WITH CANCER, she was at the same time reeling from the news that her husband had cheated on her, or might still be cheating on her.
She’s now being criticized for not having immediately told all of America the news that her husband had committed adultery. She’s been called a “co-conspirator” in keeping his secret and for continuing with the campaign. That’s absurd, of course. Why would any woman want to reveal her private betrayal and humiliation to anyone other than her closest confidantes, much less to the national press? Clearly, she believed whatever lies he told her about the affair being brief and over and a terrible mistake. She wanted to believe him, she wanted to save her marriage and no, she didn’t want some fling with a cheap floozy to bring down a five year effort to elect her husband president, a cause she clearly believed in, heart and soul.
This particular public criticism of Mrs. Edwards – that she “hid” her husband’s infidelity – was the first related to her husband’s downfall, but not the last. In the past few months, the books “Game Change” and now the foul new tell-all by the campaign aide that John Edwards somehow convinced to cover his affair, claim paternity of his child, and handle the hush money have both been released, both books claiming that Elizabeth Edwards was, well, difficult to deal with between 2006 and 2008. She was apparently somewhat shrewish and erratic during this period. She left angry voicemails for the aide she suspected of helping to continue the affair her husband assured her was over but she suspected might not be (he was helping). She sometimes berated her husband in front of others, and she was suspicious of his comings and goings. She apparently once completely lost it in public on an airport tarmac, weeping and screaming at her husband while tearing at her blouse.
The books that now seek to make the case that Mrs. Edwards was some kind of crazy, middle aged beeyotch don’t talk much about what she was doing when she wasn’t doing the occasional things that these authors tell us seemed somewhat unpleasant to her husband and staffers. They don’t talk about the continuing cancer treatments and medications that surely made her tired and somewhat nauseated each and every day. They don’t talk about the nights she certainly laid awake, paralyzed with fear that she would die and leave her children alone, now with a man she was no longer sure she could count on. They don’t mention to grueling schedule that had her telling five different crowds a day how great her husband was, even as she was dying inside with the recently acquired knowledge that he had cheated. They don’t talk about what it takes to be the working mother of a college student and two other young children – the phone calls to organize dorm placements and class schedules, the late nights when the seven year old has a fever, or the refereeing of kid-squabbles that can wear you out even on a good day. These were all the things Elizabeth Edwards was dealing with every day as she lived a completely public life AND as she processed the information that her husband had cheated.
I’m going to come right out and say here that the MEN who wrote the two books now dragging Elizabeth Edwards through the mud have never been wives and mothers of young children who have gone through the pain of learning of their husband’s infidelity. These guys have never tried to juggle cancer treatments, a national presidential campaign, and the mothering of three children, two of them still very young. Astonishingly, one of the authors criticizing Elizabeth Edwards so publicly at the moment is, in fact, THE VERY PERSON WHO MOST ASSISTED ELIZABETH EDWARDS’ HUSBAND IN CARRYING ON THE AFFAIR WITH RIELLE HUNTER. This man worked as hard as could to make it easier and more convenient for John Edwards to cheat on his wife for a period of many months, he lied about the affair to Mrs. Edwards, who had considered him a friend and had been very good to him, and he then went on to hide John Edwards’ paternity of Rielle Hunter’s baby. And yet this man has the NERVE to then write a book complaining that Elizabeth Edwards left him a couple of hysterical and yes, even angry voicemails as she became aware of his role in all of this?
You know, if I had been going through everything that Elizabeth Edwards went through in the past three years, I certainly would have acted a little crazy now and again. I would have screamed at people sometimes (particularly those I discovered to have actively supported the utter destruction of everything that mattered to me in life). I likely would have left a few nasty voicemails. I might have made an ill-advised attempt to rationalize my husband’s betrayal by speaking publicly about it before I knew all the facts (which turned out to be far worse than imagined). Hell, I very well might have flung myself off the nearest bridge.
This woman has undeniably been through hell in the past 36 months. And if the worst anyone can say about her is that she occasionally lost her cool as her life and her beloved children’s lives completely unraveled, piece by piece, all in the harshest possible glare of public scrutiny, well, I think that actually proves the point that those of us who think she’s pretty great have been making all along. Elizabeth Edwards is a class act, and a special and graceful woman who has a lot to teach the rest of us about how to live through and rise above the worst that life gives us.
The people who are profiting now by picking on her, by kicking another human being when she’s so obviously already been kicked more than enough should be thoroughly ashamed. Have they never experienced personal betrayal, divorce or abandonment…or even just a really bad break-up? Do none of them remember what that felt like, and how they behaved themselves at the height of their own pain, even without the added burdens and publicity with which Mrs. Edwards had to live? Have these people no compassion or sense of decency?
Leave Elizabeth Edwards alone.