By Lynne Duke and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 23, 2007
Not once did the shadow of fear cross her face. Elizabeth Edwards stood before the nation, a graceful fighter steeled for personal tragedy again. The cancer is back and in her bones, a lung and possibly elsewhere. The news seemed worse than bad. Yet Edwards conveyed no hint of being hobbled by an incurable cancer. Self-pity was nowhere on the scene.
"Is this a hardship for us? Yes, it's yet another hurdle," she said. "But I've seen people who are in real desperate shape who don't, first of all, have the wonderful support that I have and have no place to turn."
With an openness that thrust her personal travails square into the public and political arena, Edwards, 57, laughed at times, seemingly free of stress as she spoke forthrightly yesterday about her health and its implications for her life and her husband's presidential campaign.
She appeared relaxed, fully in command of the public space she occupied as she couched her health status in the most optimistic terms possible, saying of her marriage, "We're going to always look for the silver lining. It is who we are as people, and we'll continue to do it."
John and Elizabeth Edwards stood together, a battle-tested couple once again meeting the public. Both lawyers, they have lived a life of prosperity and good fortune but also suffered devastating loss. Their firstborn, Wade, died at 16 in a 1996 car accident. In 2004, at the end of her husband's vice presidential campaign, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. And now, in the midst of his campaign for the presidency, comes news of her cancer's recurrence.
The Edwardses don't speak very much in public about Wade's death, though Elizabeth devoted a section of her memoir, "Saving Graces," to Wade's passing.
"She has always been strong, but I don't think she has always been able to control her emotions. That came from Wade's death," says Hargrave McElroy, the close friend who was with Elizabeth when, as she campaigned in 2004, she discovered the lump in her breast. "She was strengthened by that and has the ability to move forward despite bad news."
In the hours before yesterday's noon news conference, there had been speculation that her husband might suspend some of his campaign activities. But friends says they are certain that his wife would have been dead-set against any change in his campaign.
The real question friends and political observers have is not whether she'll tough it out -- but whether he can stay connected and focused without her. Though Edwards said he expects his wife to be with him on the campaign trail when she can, he also added, "Any time any place that I need to be with Elizabeth, I will be there, period."
Friends say this turn of events, as distressing as it is, was handled in pure Elizabeth Edwards style: head on.
"She dreads nothing," said her brother, Jay Anania, 56.
"It's who she is. She's never not been that way," Anania says. "When she was a child she was sort of the smartest, the strongest and most organized, the doer. She's the one, when we were in elementary school in Japan, she would write the book and the music for the Christmas pageant. She's absolutely always been that way. She's somebody who said to me at one point during the last campaign, when she had gone 20 hours a day for months and I said, 'You really need to rest,' and she said, 'Rest is overrated.' "
"With Elizabeth, what you see is definitely what you get, and that's the way she is in private," says Gordon Livingston, whose friendship with Edwards dates to the bereavement network that helped her after the death of her son.
"And she's been tested as few other people have, and I think what's important for people watching this is to see the unflinching way in which she's remained optimistic in the face of bad news," Livingston said.
A staunch advocate for her husband's campaign and his closest adviser, she made clear yesterday she wanted her husband to continue campaigning because "it's unbelievably important that we get his election right. And in my view, there's nobody who's offering people in this country a more positive and delineated vision about where we can go than John."
"Of course" John Edwards would have offered to suspend his campaign, says Chris Downey, the former wife of former Rep. Tom Downey, who befriended the Edwardses when they first came to Washington, "because he cherishes her. He cherishes his family. That's what he would do. He would stop everything."
But Downey and other friends say it would be Elizabeth's way to insist that her husband campaign on.
"Quite frankly, I suspect she was the one to say, 'Don't suspend the campaign.' She is not a quitter," said Debbie Dingell, a friend of Edwards. "She wouldn't think of it. They are a total team. She's sensitive to people, trends and political situations in a unique way. She is a very strong and a very decent woman."
Edwards has long been the center of her husband's world, the one whose advice he has always sought and for whom who he would practice his opening statements before a trial, said Bonnie Weyher, a friend from law school. She recalls a well-told story about Edwards having to make a split-second legal decision during a trial and looking to his wife in the gallery for her nod.
During the 2004 presidential race, Elizabeth Edwards almost always traveled with her husband, and aides knew she was the ultimate gatekeeper and her husband's closest adviser. She sat in on every debate practice and "not as a cheerleader," said one person involved in that campaign.
"She was very well versed in all the issues and had no trouble telling him, 'That was an awful answer,' " the source said. "He clearly relied on her heavily."
In her book, Edwards wrote about what informed how she campaigned. She decided she would not be a caricature of a campaign spouse. She would not change herself to fit a type. In all those nursing centers and shopping centers and kitchen campaign events, she would not -- and probably could not -- be someone she was not. Voters wanted that rarest of political beings: a real person. And that's all she could be.
"There were a lot of ways to have this experience, but I only knew one, the one I had learned growing up -- open up, let them in, and find out what we share," she wrote in her memoir. "You didn't have to be perfect; you had to be open."