Elizabeth Edwards: Survivor in chief

Elizabeth Edwards during a 2009 interview on the "Today" show.
Elizabeth Edwards during a 2009 interview on the "Today" show. (Richard Drew/associated Press)

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By Jennifer Palmieri
Friday, January 22, 2010

The first time I met Elizabeth Edwards, she greeted me at the door of her home juggling a yogurt in one hand and a Diet Coke in the other.

"Would you like either one of these things? Because they are all I have in the house. I am so determined. This time I will lose 40 pounds."

I liked her immediately. She utterly lacked pretense, and I knew there was no way she was going to lose 40 pounds. You could just tell she loved life too much to let things like diets stand in the way of a good time.

I had gone to her home to interview with the Edwardses for a job on the 2004 presidential campaign. I had not met either of them before, and I was a little concerned that, per the conventional wisdom then, John Edwards might be "a slick trial lawyer" without a lot of "there" there.

I decided that if Elizabeth Edwards had chosen to be married to this guy for 26 years, he must be okay. Turns out, she and I were both wrong on that one, as his late admission of paternity of a daughter with a former mistress confirms. But I don't regret joining the campaign. My life will always be richer for becoming friends with Elizabeth.

The recently published book "Game Change" offers many compelling portraits of Elizabeth -- at some of the worst moments of her life. I don't believe the authors intended those anecdotes to represent the sum total of her personality, but readers don't have the option of a broader view of her.

I would like to offer one.

Elizabeth would be the first to tell you that she is opinionated, unyielding, blunt and unwilling to suffer fools. Saint Elizabeth she is not. And no one laughs louder than she at that notion. But she is also one of the wisest, warmest and funniest girlfriends a woman could hope to have, truly a call-her-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-she-will-drop-everything-to-help sort. Most everyone knows she is brilliant, one of those people who can quote Henry James and Paul Krugman. Yet she is still the down-to-earth person many Americans first saw in 2004.

I have sometimes thought Elizabeth might have been better suited to life as a campaign staffer than as a campaign spouse. She had lots of great policy ideas and she can wonk out with the best of them. She also had some unfair expectations, and not all of her proposals were good. If they had been coming from a campaign staffer, her ideas could have been debated; coming from the candidate's spouse, they were seen as edicts. There were some difficult moments, but she is no diva. I don't know of many other campaign spouses who make airport runs to pick up staff or insist that she be put on cheap, inconvenient flights and booked in cheap hotels to save the campaign money. She never cared much about her appearance and had to be forced to carry a purse. (I still recall the look on New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny's face when she pulled her credit card from her bra once to pay for her lunch -- priceless.)

We shared many, many laughs in 2004. But the 2008 cycle was very different.

It is hard to explain, even to fathom, how difficult these past three years have been on her. I understand that if your husband betrayed you as badly as hers did, you might have a hard time knowing whom to trust. The stress and wrenching grief permeated every aspect of her life and made circumstances difficult for many of us in the campaign. I believe that she was unfairly critical of some staffers who are good friends of mine and were trying to do the best job they could in an impossible situation. Elizabeth and I continue to argue about that, and I know that she regrets some things that she said. I try to let her know there are loads of us who love her and whom she can trust.

Many have observed that Elizabeth Edwards could be a political figure in her own right. She has never had an interest in that. Of all the roles she has taken -- including lawyer, campaign spouse, author, health-care advocate -- the one I think that suits her most is mom from North Carolina who just happens to be a brilliant writer with an obsessive interest in policy and college basketball.

I have learned a lot about life watching her. She suffered the all-consuming loss of a child and succeeded in regaining joy, and she has a lot to teach about holding on to hope, being grateful for what you have and living life to its fullest. When I spoke with her this week, I thought that for the first time in three years the old Elizabeth seemed to be back. She was grounded, funny, maybe even happy. When she reads this, I know that she will point out the things I said that are wrong or unfair, and express particular dismay at any sentences I ended with prepositions. I love her for that.

The writer, senior vice president for communications at the Center for American Progress, was the national press secretary for the 2004 Edwards for President campaign and a part-time consultant for Edwards's 2008 presidential campaign.


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