Elizabeth Edwards' choice to stay in the political arena despite a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about Elizabeth Edwards. People admired her before she was ill for the same reasons they admire her now. She comes across as honest, smart and unpretentious — as well as both devoted to and independent of her husband. But we have learned a great deal about the political arena from the hubbub that greeted her decision. For all the lip service Washington pays to valuing political players who are authentic and truthful, it turns out that real, honest-to-God straight talk about matters of life, death and, yes, political ambition, drives “some people” (to use Katie Couric’s locution) nuts.
If you caught Elizabeth and John Edwards in the Couric interview on “60 Minutes” or at their joint news conference in Chapel Hill, you saw a couple speaking as couples chasing the presidency rarely do. When Ms. Couric gratuitously reminded Mrs. Edwards that she was “staring at possible death,” Mrs. Edwards countered: “Aren’t we all, though?” It’s been a steady refrain of her public comments that “we’re all going to die” and that she has the right to make her own choice to fight for her husband’s candidacy even as she fights for her life. There are no euphemisms or equivocations in her language. There’s no apologizing by either Edwards for the raw political calculus of their campaign plans. There’s no sentimental public hand-wringing about the possible effect her choice might have on her children. The unpatronizing Mrs. Edwards sounds like an adult speaking to adults.
Americans understood. A CBS News poll found that by more than two to one, both women and men support the decision to move forward. So do prominent cancer survivors in the media establishment, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum: Tony Snow (before his own rehospitalization), Laura Ingraham, Cokie Roberts and Barbara Ehrenreich all cheered on Mrs. Edwards. But others who muse on politics for a living responded with bafflement and implicit moral condemnation — and I don’t mean just Rush Limbaugh, who ridiculed the Edwardses for dedicating themselves to their campaign instead of, as he would have it, “to God.”
No less ludicrous were those pundits who presumed to bestow their own wisdom upon the Edwards household as it confronted terminal illness. A Washington correspondent for Time (a man) fretted that “Edwards’s supporters, and surely many average Americans” will be wondering when his “duties as a husband and a father” will “trump his duty to his country and the cause of winning the White House.” (Oh those benighted “average” Americans!) A former Los Angeles Times reporter (a woman) who covered the 2004 Edwards campaign suggested to USA Today that “this is a time when they would want to be home together savoring every moment that they’ve got.” A Washington Post columnist, identifying herself as a fellow mother, faulted Mrs. Edwards for not being sufficiently protective of her children.
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