Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this obituary of lawyer and political spouse Elizabeth Edwards misstated in one instance the month in 2008 when her husband, John Edwards, ended his candidacy for U.S. president. He withdrew from the competition for the Democratic nomination in January 2008. This version has been corrected.

Elizabeth Edwards dies; lived her pain on a public stage

Edwards, stoic as her husband's presidential ambitions collapsed, her marriage crumbled and cancer sapped her strength, died Tuesday of the disease. She was 61.
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 12:54 AM

Elizabeth A. Edwards, who captured the nation's sympathy and admiration for her forthright grace in coping with her struggle with breast cancer and the infidelity of her husband, presidential candidate John Edwards, died Dec. 7 at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C., after a six-year battle with cancer.

A day before her death at 61, her family announced that she had stopped treatment for her cancer because doctors had told her that further medical attention would be unproductive.

Ms. Edwards had been a lawyer and formidable force in the political rise of her husband, who went from being a one-term U.S. senator from North Carolina to the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004 to a presidential candidate in the 2008 Democratic primaries. She separated from him in January.

Describing herself as the "anti-Barbie" for her real-woman figure and her serious intellect, Ms. Edwards's public stature was greatly defined by how she coped with cancer. She talked about it, wrote about it and managed the conversation in much the same way she managed her husband's political career.

She first learned that she had breast cancer just after Election Day 2004, when her husband's running mate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), lost the presidential race to incumbent George W. Bush.

"The same day our campaign ended at Faneuil Hall, we saw Elizabeth head off to Mass General to confront this terrible disease," Kerry said Tuesday. "America came to know her in a different and even more personal way, as she fought back with enormous grace and dignity. She became an inspiration to so many."

The public rallied to her side, flooding her with nearly 65,000 messages of support. Ms. Edwards later wrote a best-selling memoir, "Saving Graces" (2006), in which she described her life and fight for survival. News coverage promoted her as one of the "100 most influential people in the world" (Time), "the most refreshing political spouse since Eleanor Roosevelt" (Oprah Winfrey's O magazine) and "shoo-in for regular person" (The Washington Post).

Political protector

Behind that persona, Ms. Edwards was a ferocious advocate who created briefing books for her husband, directed campaign staff and went after his political enemies, displaying a temper notable even in the high-pressure environment of politics. Their difference in appearance - the candidate was derided by opponents as "the Breck Girl" for his good looks, while she clearly struggled with her weight - attracted supporters as well, and John Edwards's commitment to her in her illness seemed to indicate that theirs was a marriage that mirrored many couples' ups and downs.

By the next presidential campaign cycle, when her husband was running for president, Ms. Edwards's cancer had returned, spreading to her bones. Doctors told her that it was treatable but incurable, and the couple's decision to continue seeking the Democratic presidential nomination stunned political observers.

In January 2008, when her husband publicly admitted to having repeatedly lied about carrying on an affair with campaign aide Rielle Hunter, the campaign came to an abrupt end. In January, after her husband said he had fathered a child with Hunter, the Edwardses separated.

Ms. Edwards had learned of the affair in early 2006 but stayed silent about it in public and campaigned for her husband. That annoyed some of her supporters, who noted that the Edwardses ran as a couple, telling the story of their romance and publicly renewing their vows on their 30th anniversary.

During that campaign, she publicly took on acerbic conservative commentator Ann Coulter, spoke out about her disagreement with her husband on his support for the Iraq war resolution and her support for same-sex marriage, and addressed how she coped with the death of their 16-year-old son.

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