washingtonpost.com
A True Political Partner
John Edwards's Wife Has Helped Shape His Presidential Bid and Often Shares Its Spotlight

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

Aboard a small chartered jet, Elizabeth Edwards -- lawyer, mother, author, cancer patient, candidate's wife -- was flying recently from New Hampshire to Iowa. She had spent the morning campaigning solo and was meeting her husband, John Edwards, and their younger daughter, Emma Claire, for two days of joint appearances. Son Jack was curled up under a blanket in the back of the cabin.

Among political insiders who closely follow the presidential race and gossip about who is up and who is down in every campaign, Elizabeth Edwards is seen as the hidden hand behind virtually every important decision regarding her husband's second bid for the White House.

"Boy, that would be completely wrong," she said with a laugh when asked about those perceptions. "Completely wrong."

Four months ago, Edwards, 58, received a diagnosis of incurable cancer, a finding that would have forced many other people to the sidelines. Instead, she has emerged as the most visible and effective advocate for her husband, the campaign's most provocative personality and newest television star.

What about de facto campaign manager?

"I get a lot more credit for, you know, being the puppeteer than I am," she said. "I express my opinion. Honestly, I'm not the decision maker."

In large part because of her illness and a best-selling book about her life, Edwards has achieved the kind of celebrity stature that befits someone who has appeared on "Oprah" and whose struggles have become very public.

Her cancer now helps to define her persona, but making John Edwards president also remains at the forefront of her life. If she is neither a political strategist nor the overseer of operations at Edwards's North Carolina headquarters, her influence on the broad outlines and some details of the Democratic former senator's campaign is without question.

"She's not micromanaging," said one strategist close to the campaign, "but to say she's just the spouse who travels occasionally would be a tremendous understatement."

She is the candidate's closest friend and most important confidant -- and co-architect of a campaign for the White House that differs in tone, style and substance from the one John Edwards ran four years ago, first as a presidential candidate and then as Sen. John F. Kerry's running mate. This one is designed to be more of a grass-roots insurgency -- bolder and more left-leaning -- and is set up so that the candidate's judgments and instincts take precedence over the advice of professional consultants.

Edwards said she and her husband gained confidence from the last campaign to run this one the way they thought best, rather than relying excessively on the advice of others.

"It seemed a lot more like theater the first time," she said. "Your life was run by advance and polling people and advisers [who would say], 'Say this line and say it this way, not that way.' So it seemed very theatrical. You felt like, you know, it was possible to flub your lines. It made you nervous about things because you could mess it up somehow, and that was really contrary to who John is and who I am. But we tried to do it because we had never done it before. We tried to do it the way we were told by people who had lots of experience. We're now liberated from that, and it's great."

No one believes more in her husband's potential to be president than Elizabeth Edwards. But her confidence and belief in his character are so absolute, they raise questions about whether candidate and wife can see their campaign critically enough, or have strong, independent voices around them to challenge the candidate when necessary.

Four years ago Edwards participated in many of the nuts-and-bolts meetings and decisions of the campaign. This time she does far less of that, aides say. But she is never shy about offering advice based on her sense of what is best for her husband and her interaction with people on the campaign trail, and she can be demanding and sometimes intimidating to the staff, according to those who have worked in this and previous campaigns.

"People say things to me all the time that grossly inflate my importance," Edwards said during another recent conversation. "There's no way to cut through it. If they believe it, it's so."

She plays a role in personnel decisions, but she plays it down. "I don't have any approval of anybody, except people who are in my world," she said. "Like who do you want to travel with you, and people who interact with us. I give feedback, you know. We have a chief of staff. If something goes right or something goes wrong, I let her know so she can do her job effectively."

In a recent phone interview, Edwards said she could not even recall the name of one of the campaign's newest hires and said she had not been involved in recent staff recruitments. Asked who is now running the campaign, she laughed again. "All these stories about my pulling the strings -- honestly, I don't know."

Policy Wonk and Provocateur

Edwards is a voracious consumer of information -- briefing books, the Internet, conversations with voters. More than one aide has received a late-night phone call asking for more information about something or an e-mail in the middle of the night -- Edwards admits she is an insomniac -- with an idea for the campaign.

She does not shrink from descriptions of her as someone who weighs in regularly on major policy decisions. She and her husband generally share the same views about issues, although they sometimes disagree. In 2002, she questioned whether her husband should support the resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war, believing there was no immediate provocation from Saddam Hussein. "And as you can see," she said, "I did not win the day."

When Edwards began discussing what kind of health-care plan to propose in this campaign, she preferred a more radical change, urging the campaign to consider an individual-based system rather than the existing employer-based system to achieve universal coverage. In the end, John Edwards adopted a plan that relies heavily on employer-based insurance while giving consumers the choice of buying into a Medicare-like option that could lead to something approaching a single-payer system. Aides say Elizabeth Edwards ended up supporting that blueprint.

She also disagrees with her husband on the issue of same-sex marriage. She supports it; he does not. He supports civil unions but has said that his small-town, Baptist upbringing has made him reluctant to endorse recognition of marriage.

Edwards said she participates in fewer policy discussions now than in the past, but others say she is deeply involved in any significant policy debate. Her public role, however, has become increasingly clear: She is the campaign's chief surrogate and provocateur.

Last month, she phoned in to MSNBC's "Hardball" to confront conservative firebrand Ann Coulter. A few weeks later, during an interview with Salon.com, she criticized the two leading Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), saying her husband would be a better advocate for women than Clinton and arguing that neither Clinton nor Obama had offered a compelling rationale for their candidacies.

Edwards said she is uncomfortable with all the attention those incidents received. "None of this was purposeful," she said. "Absolutely none. Zero."

Yet attention is nothing new to Edwards. She gained some prominence in the 2004 campaign, much more when breast cancer was diagnosed as the campaign ended. Her book, "Saving Graces," helped her to reach an even larger audience. And since March, she has been fighting a new -- and widely publicized -- battle with cancer.

"She has her own book, and she has her own disease," said Jennifer Palmieri, who was an adviser during the first campaign and is a close friend. "It's a very hard place to live."

But long before her diagnosis, Edwards knew tragedy in her life. On April 4, 1996, the Edwards's oldest child, Wade, was killed in an automobile accident at 16. Her book recounts in extraordinarily poignant detail her attempts to cope with the loss.

"What I expected of myself was wholly unrealistic," she said recently. "I expected I was going to be able to be stoical, I was going to be able to carry on. I didn't realize it was going to be like a Mack truck hitting me and us all the time when we were unsuspecting."

For many months, she visited Wade's grave site every day. She took him his SAT score when it arrived after his death. She read him books from his classmates' school reading list.

Today, as driven as she is by her desire to help elect her husband president, Edwards also has interests beyond the campaign. Friends say she is, by nature, a homebody. She is an active mother of three -- Emma Claire, 9; Jack, 7; and Cate, 25 -- and the daughter of aging parents who recently moved to an assisted-care facility in North Carolina.

She is a shopper. She likes to run by Target on Tuesdays, when the newest DVDs are released. On the campaign trail, she makes time for shopping detours, as she did last month in Iowa, unexpectedly getting out of the van and leaving her husband to go on alone to speak to a labor group.

"She jumped out in the middle of an intersection," John Edwards explained in mock horror shortly after it happened.

"At the corner," she replied.

"Sweetie, but there were no crosswalks or anything," he said. "There were cars everywhere."

"I just waited until there were no cars, and I walked with the light," she said firmly.

All for a pair of socks for Father's Day.

Campaigning solo, Elizabeth Edwards is viewed as an inspirational figure, welcomed enthusiastically by her audiences. She fields detailed questions about her husband's views on issues. A stickler for precision and accuracy, she sometimes pauses to note that she does not have all the details, but in most cases she is fully fluent on what the candidate has proposed and why.

Her unexpected asides can offer a window into her spirited and sometimes vulnerable personality. Early in June, Edwards was opening the campaign's local office in Concord, N.H. A small group of supporters had turned out, and they were munching on doughnuts and drinking coffee when she arrived.

As she started to speak, two photographers plunked down on the floor in front of her, shooting from the ground up. She gave them an alarmed look. "That is not an angle women like their picture taken," she admonished them, to no avail.

Arriving at a house party in Meredith, N.H., a few weeks later, she was greeted by a woman who said her husband was in the state legislature. "So you're another person with a derivative existence," she joked.

More Instinct, Fewer Strategists

After Wade's death, the Internet was one of the places Edwards found comfort and support -- before most people knew what the Internet was all about. That experience buoyed her during a time of immeasurable grief, but it also provided a practical lesson when her husband decided to run for president. She understood that the Web could become a powerful tool to create communities, whether for grieving parents or political activists.

Edwards said she pushed in 2004 to create a more dynamic online presence, one that would generate feedback, comments and ultimately support. "We didn't follow through in 2004," she said, noting that Howard Dean became the Internet pioneer in that campaign.

A more robust Internet presence is just one of the changes Edwards and her husband demanded in this campaign. She encouraged his instinct to make poverty a centerpiece of his message, and it is not by accident that there has been no dominant general strategist this time. Some Democrats believe that Joe Trippi, who was Dean's campaign manager in 2004 and recently joined the Edwards campaign, may come to play such a role, but others insist he is one of several senior aides guiding the operation.

Neither Edwards is fond of power political consultants, and in 2003, John Edwards had a very public breakup with veteran strategist Bob Shrum, who had handled his Senate campaign in 1998. The wounds still have not healed. Shrum drew a critical portrait of John Edwards in his recent book, "No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner," and asserted that Edwards had voted for the 2002 Iraq resolution largely on Shrum's advice. He wrote that he regrets giving the advice.

Elizabeth Edwards delivered a pointed rebuttal to the book's account during a CNN interview shortly after its publication. "As far as I can tell there's not a single passage that is accurate," she said of Shrum's descriptions of the Edwards campaign.

Shrum said last week that her comment did not deal with the specifics of what he wrote, but he added, "I have great respect for Elizabeth Edwards, and I have nothing negative to say about her."

In 2004, there was a falling out with David Axelrod, the campaign's media consultant and senior strategist, and the advertising was shifted to another consultant, Marius Penczner. "I don't think David ever got John," Edwards said.

Asked for comment, Axelrod e-mailed: "I have a great deal of affection and respect for Elizabeth and John. There's no doubt we had strategic differences, but I also never doubted her deep, abiding commitment to John and his success."

Edwards recently recalled a moment in the 2004 general election campaign when she lost faith in consultants. It happened when a strategist was explaining a weighting formula by which the campaign advisers planned to schedule John and Elizabeth Edwards and John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, into different media markets.

"It seemed so completely bogus," she said. "It was like somebody had pulled the curtain back in 'The Wizard of Oz.' All of a sudden you saw people pulling levers on a machine that didn't operate anything. No one could have thought that way who'd actually been out hearing these stories and talking to people. . . . That was the magic hand moving people around and saying, 'You say it this way.' "

Still, with savvy consultants, would the current campaign have avoided some of the issues that have arisen this year? Those are now short-handed as the three Hs -- haircuts (at $400 a pop), hedge fund (the candidate's tenure as a hedge fund executive) and house (the 28,000-square-foot home the couple recently had built for their return to North Carolina).

At the height of the haircut flap, Elizabeth Edwards used a humorous quiz to defuse the issue in her introduction of her husband.

"How many people in his family went to college before he did?" she asked. The answer, which many in the audiences knew: none.

"Anybody know what his dad did for a living?" she continued. "Millworker," the audience uniformly responded.

"Anybody know the price of his most expensive haircut?" With that, the audience dissolved in laughter.

In a recent telephone interview, Edwards addressed those critics who say that with more empowered consultants, the campaign might have avoided or at least minimized those distractions. "Consultants are only good if you're going to listen to them," she said. "With the respect to decisions John's made, he listens primarily to his own conscience."

The decision to join the hedge fund came after John Edwards weighed the opportunities afforded by the job, which his wife said included considerable international work and a chance to gain insight into how this growing segment of the investment economy operated. "He didn't go through the portfolio, but he talked to these people [the fund's executives] and knew them to be good people," she said.

As for the haircuts, she said no one in the family knew the cost. Starting with the first campaign, the couple set up a system to authorize someone else to handle their routine bills. Edwards said they did not want to spend their few minutes at home in any month writing checks to pay them. The haircut bill that went to this campaign did not go to a strategist but to someone in finance, who paid it.

"We're not too happy ourselves about paying that much for a haircut," Edwards said. "We didn't need a consultant to tell us to fix that problem."

She also explained the thinking behind the new house. "We get heat about the house," she said. "A consultant, I suppose, would have told us not to build the house of our dreams when we came back to North Carolina."

Noting that the couple do not drive fancy cars and that she has never indulged in things such as expensive jewelry, she said, "That's money that John earned, and for the purpose we've always felt was most important."

John Edwards said his wife plays two critical roles in his White House bid. One is to encourage him to speak from his heart. "She will, if I ask her, tell me exactly what she thinks about an issue, but the dominant advice from her -- the recurring theme of all the advice -- is, 'Do what you believe is right.' If I were to say one thing that I've heard from her over and over again, that's it."

The other role may be even more a sign of the bond between the couple, who will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary today, and the importance they place on the mission they are jointly pursuing: urging her husband not to suspend the campaign when she was told that her cancer had spread.

"Without her saying we're going forward with this, I would have stopped and gone home and taken care of her," he said. "She was very strong and adamant about continuing in this cause, and not just for my sake, but because she believes the same things I believe about the country."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company