Essay

Losing More Than a Campaign

John Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, seen at a rally in Des Moines in December, announced earlier last year that she is battling incurable cancer. (By Ramin Talaie -- Bloomberg News)
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By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

What John and Elizabeth Edwards bid farewell to yesterday was not only a presidential campaign. They did not let go of the dream of changing the world while living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But they lost the blessed gift of distraction.

Gone are the thousands of tiny details that go along with a presidential campaign:

• Do you go to Los Angeles or New York?

• Do you do Letterman or Leno?

• Do you travel separately or together?

• Is the red tie too cliched or the blue tie too overtly rich?

These are the matters that keep your mind busy, racing, sorting, planning, strategizing. These are the things that keep your mind off the really big thing in your life: cancer.

When Elizabeth Edwards's cancer came roaring back in March, some wondered why they didn't stride off into the sunset to their mansion in Chapel Hill to spend "what time she had left" with their young children. Those of us who have done the cancer dance know at least one reason why they didn't.

Distraction.

In overheated school gymnasiums in Iowa where signs wave, speakers boom songs from the '80s and voters ask about health care, the economy and Iraq, there is no room for the demons. When you tumble into the queen bed in another generic hotel or clamber onto the bus to trundle off to yet another town hall meeting, there are a few blissful hours when words such as chemotherapy, radiation and long-term survivability are pushed to the back of the brain. Always there, but not in the forefront: not when you're running late and there are voters at a diner in Ames waiting for you.

So there was a real sense that more than a campaign was lost when John Edwards stood at a podium yesterday in New Orleans. Uncharacteristically, he seemed to rush his delivery -- stumbling over the story of the Virginia man with the cleft palette, even though the tale had been part of his stump speech for months now.

He spoke as he always does about two Americas, implicit in his message: "It's not fair." The poised, handsome 54-year-old trial lawyer with the three picture-perfect kids and the wife whose gaze is as steely as it is loving knows better than most of us about life not being fair. He knows that there should be four children, not three, at his side (their oldest son died in an accident as a teenager). He knows that if the two youngest ones -- Emma Claire, 9, and Jack, 7 -- are lucky they'll have a few more years with their mom, years to cement memories so that she will never be just a fuzzy image in a photograph.

Even as the campaign ends, speculation swirls: Would John Edwards take the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket again? Would he serve as attorney general in a Barack Obama administration?

Let John and Elizabeth Edwards get caught up in the buzz of what's next for him. After all, buzz and swirl and speculation can be quite distracting.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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