By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Her hair has grown back, longer and thicker. She needs a hand climbing into the director's chair positioned at the front of the George Washington University auditorium. Look closely: The wedding band is missing.
"She looks a bit fragile," observes Liz Roberts, an Arlington woman in the audience Monday evening.
"Maybe vulnerable," says her friend Debbie Nichols.
And yet Elizabeth Edwards is here. Inside the Beltway, in front of the cameras, one week before the Election Day she once dreamed would carry her husband into the giant white house just seven blocks away.
The "husband," as she refers to him, is not here.
This is Elizabeth's gig, her topic, on her terms. There will be no mention of the scandal. No interviews allowed.
Nearly three months after former senator John Edwards acknowledged he had had an affair with a campaign consultant, Elizabeth Edwards, 59, is gradually reemerging, cautiously creating a new public persona -- not as the victimized wife, but as an expert on one of the most pressing domestic policy issues of the day: health care. An expert with an unfortunately heavy dose of firsthand experience.
"Until October 2004, the only time I ever went to the hospital was to have babies," she says, gently reminding the crowd of several hundred of her first cancer diagnosis. "You have no idea what's coming down the pike at you."
The event is billed as "Sick and Broke: A Conversation About Health Care With Elizabeth Edwards," a cozy chat with a friendly interviewer from the liberal American Prospect magazine. It is sponsored by the Center for American Progress, the left-leaning think tank where she is now a senior fellow.
Not that the Edwards family is broke, not remotely. Before he became a senator, John Edwards made millions as a trial lawyer, money that helped fuel his two presidential campaigns and also paid for her to receive some of the best medical care in the world. Yet the story of John and Elizabeth Edwards has also been a reminder of what money cannot buy.
From the beginning, to an astonishing -- almost painful -- degree, Elizabeth Edwards has shared her personal life with us. In her book, blogs and endless campaign interviews, she has spoken with striking candor about her own experiences. The death of a teenage son. Giving birth two years later, at age 48, and again at age 50. A diagnosis of breast cancer one month before John Kerry and running mate John Edwards lost the 2004 presidential race. Remission, a second presidential campaign, and a return of the cancer.
But when, in early August, John Edwards publicly acknowledged his affair, and was caught on camera visiting the other woman, Elizabeth retreated.
Unlike other scorned political wives -- Hillary Clinton, Dina Matos McGreevey, Silda Wall Spitzer -- she did not appear beside her husband for the requisite televised mea culpa. She sent him out alone. She canceled an appearance at the Democratic National Convention.
"This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well," she wrote on the liberal blog Daily Kos.
A lot of supporters turned on him, but many were miffed at Elizabeth, too. She had learned of the affair in 2006, long before it became public. And yet she had hit the campaign trail on his behalf. For nearly a year, they ran as a couple, even renewing their wedding vows on their 30th anniversary in the summer of 2007.
When the scandal became public this past August, just before the convention, she made no apologies for her husband, instead encouraging all the world to watch his on-camera confession. But she also made clear she wasn't leaving.
"Although John believes he should stand alone and take the consequences of his action now, when the door closes behind him, he has his family waiting for him," she wrote at the time.
Then she disappeared, and so did he.
Now she is back in the public eye, this time alone, speaking on the issue that animates her more than any other.
"When you're young, you think you're never going to have any conditions that need any attention, you don't go to the doctor that often," she tells the crowd of mostly students. But some day, she warns, you may get sick, as she did. Then you'll have a "preexisting condition."
And if Sen. John McCain is elected president next Tuesday, good luck, she essentially says. Under McCain's health-care proposal, she argues, many employers would likely drop health insurance, prices would continue to skyrocket, insurers would replace doctors as the primary decision makers. And people like her -- and McCain -- couldn't even get insurance because of their "preexisting conditions."
She lashes McCain's running mate, too, saying Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is "not particularly well informed" about health care.
Yet she does not spare the Democratic nominee. Sen. Barack Obama, she complains, falls short on health care, too. He has not committed to covering every American.
Edwards, an accomplished lawyer who set aside her career for her husband's political aspirations, is well versed in the intricacies of the $2 trillion American health-care system. She can do the mind-numbing bit as well as any Washington wonk. Phrases such as "contracts of adhesion" and "budget-neutral" tumble off her tongue.
Seated in black slacks, clogs and a violet sweater jacket, she appears frail but confident.
"She's no weak woman," says Nichols. "She's steely, actually."
Almost offhandedly, Edwards drops in references to her own medical saga. Explaining why electronic medical records are valuable -- in part because patients and doctors can't remember everything -- she says, "Ask what my dosage of chemotherapy is, I couldn't tell you."
To explain how insurers decide whom to cover, she says: "Frankly, I'm like somebody who's currently on fire, my avocation is jumping out of airplanes without a chute. I'm a really, really bad risk."
At one point she even borrows an anecdote from her husband's campaign speech. It is the story of James Lowe, a Virginia man born with a cleft palate so severe he could not speak for 50 years. In those five decades he married, had children and lost one.
To John Edwards, the remarkable thing about Lowe was that the hardworking coal miner had neither the insurance nor the money to get treatment.
But in Elizabeth's recounting, the tale becomes a poignant reminder of all that Lowe had to suffer in silence.
"Having lost a child myself, " she says, "I think, 'You mean he lost a child and couldn't speak about it?' "