By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007
DURHAM, N.H. Where are they? That was the question circulating among the 1,200 people in the gym at Concord High School on a cold, drizzly, sunless day this week as they waited for John and Elizabeth Edwards and their three children. After a National Merit finalist extolled the Edwards clan and loudspeakers blared the Foo Fighters for a rockin' intro, the crowd turned its attention to a set of doors, begging, pleading, for an entrance.
Instead, for nearly three minutes they got nothing. The music stopped. Chants of "Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!" didn't work. Synchronized clapping didn't, either.
When they finally emerged, it was Elizabeth leading the way. Once merely the well-liked wife of a presidential candidate touched by tragedy (the death of their son in an automobile accident, an episode of breast cancer), she has become a conduit through which Americans are debating the role of a mother and wife and the price of political service.
Elizabeth Edwards has reigned supreme over the news cycle in recent weeks. On March 22 the couple announced that cancer not only had returned to her body but had spread, making recovery through surgery impossible. The news created a pundit-blogger-morning show-talk radio frenzy of Anna Nicole-Howard K. Stern proportions. The Edwardses gamely waded through the ranks of cable news yappers. They did their time on "60 Minutes" and survived the anointment of New York Times columnist Frank Rich, whose Sunday opus was titled "Elizabeth Edwards for President." Now it was time to get back to the business of running for the Democratic nomination.
"I am an Internet junkie and a news junkie," she said in an interview after the final campaign event Monday. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I have a Google alert on every member of my family. That includes my brother who teaches film, my sister, my daughter. I have a Google alert on me. Honestly."
"The only thing that bothers me, of course, is I'm concerned about a campaign that becomes a campaign of personality. And we have so many issues in front of us. That's problematic. I'm not worried about me or what's going to happen to me. The fact that [people are] thinking of me and not health-care policy, or thinking of me and not global warming, that's bad."
At some point, of course, voters will turn their focus back to John Edwards and issues of poverty and war and agricultural price supports. But not just yet. Even though not a single person asked about his wife's health during three question-and-answer sessions in New Hampshire, still the would-be first lady and her prognosis, and the nobility or foolishness of allowing the Edwards campaign to continue, are topics that remain close to the surface. That's especially true among Democrats in this Lilliputian state, where everyone likes to believe they know the candidates.
Diane Swasey, 73, from Manchester, who considers Elizabeth a "dear friend" who always gives her a hug, said, "I knew she wouldn't let him drop out. She's such a wonderful lady." Brenda Polidoro, a mother of two from Laconia who had brought a copy of Elizabeth Edwards's book, "Saving Graces," to the Concord event, said: "Knowing them, I knew she'd want him to continue for the good of the country."
Others, who didn't claim the couple as intimates, found themselves responding to the prospect of a woman devoting whatever energy and time she has left to the political fortunes of her husband. Sitting in the bleachers in Concord, local businesswoman Wende Shoer, 48, said: "It has endeared her a little more to me. It makes her very human, a real person."
"It made her more real, more relatable," Amber Bocko, a 19-year-old University of New Hampshire sophomore whose uncle suffers from lung cancer, said later in the day. "It makes me want to support her husband."
Though Elizabeth Edwards pointed out that her husband "draws a crowd by himself," she acknowledged in the interview: "Do a few extra people come to get their books signed or to 'see how she seems'? If I draw anybody in, they see me for this much" -- holding her thumb and forefinger a short distance apart -- "and they listen to him for an hour, and that's a good thing. And they leave with whatever impression of how I look, but they couldn't help but absorb what he said."
This added attention has brought focus to the important part she plays as candidate's spouse, providing an earthy, off-the-cuff antidote to her husband's stiffer, well-rehearsed style. This was particularly evident in New Hampshire events Monday at Concord High School, at the Stonyfield Farm in Londonderry and finally at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
At each event, she would introduce her husband in a way that appeared to be unscripted. While Elizabeth tailored her remarks to suit those around her, her husband stayed stoically to his points. He spoke about the need to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, about funding elementary and secondary education for millions of kids across the world who have none, about the reduction of greenhouse gases.
"Most of the stories about me end up [saying], 'She's just like a regular person,' " Elizabeth Edwards said. "So my job, to be a regular person, that's really not that tough. If I had some higher standard to meet, I'd be worried about it."
Did she look frail or brittle or somehow scared of all that lay in front of her? No. Dressed unremarkably (a black cardigan sweater, black pants, unheeled shoes), at no point did she look frazzled or even bored. After walking into the terribly hot incubator room during a tour of the Stonyfield yogurt plant, she told the company's president and CEO, Gary Hirshberg, "You'll have to do better than this if you want to make us uncomfortable."
If not uncomfortable, the three-city jaunt proved exhausting--for those following her. It began in the late morning and drew to a close on the UNH campus close to 9 p.m. I was ready to return to a hotel room for "Law & Order" and room service. Sitting behind the makeshift stage in the UNH student union, as a way of asking "How do you plan to do it?," I told Elizabeth Edwards how the day had drained me, a 31-year-old with a head cold.
"You don't have children, right?" she said with little sympathy. "I have a 6-year-old boy who gets up really early, at 7. I have a 25-year-old, and she comes in at 2. I just adjust my life to accommodate both those things and my energy level is such that I can make it through that time."
After a brief pause, she added: "And you're a wimp, I gotta say. Sorry."
I think she was joking.