Elizabeth Edwards is sitting at the Broadway Diner on Friday morning, trying to divulge something fresh about herself. She is trying to muster some piece of information -- pure and pristine and hitherto unknown -- that gets beyond the shorthand of her newly famous profile.
The shorthand comes in 30-second roundups, insta-portraits and woman-in-the-news profiles. It is made up of tidy packets of biographical details that people keep hearing and reading (and hearing and reading) about the wife of John Edwards, the Democrats' presumptive vice presidential nominee: Edwards, 55, is four years older than her husband. They met in law school, and at the end of their first date, John kissed Elizabeth gently on the forehead. She found this really sweet. They got married a few days after taking their bar exams. They celebrate their anniversary each year at Wendy's (site of the first date).
This is how Elizabeth Edwards's public self has been reduced, rendered and rehashed to a flurry of snapshots, a few key pixels of her life. "When you try to convey something in a shorter way, the farther you move from the truth of it," she says. "So you do see, sort of, almost a monochrome picture of yourself. It does resemble you. But it's not truly you."
She is not complaining. She is, in fact, having a blast, excited about the Democratic convention next week in Boston. She's romping through Manhattan on this day, shopping for convention clothes and still ebullient about John Kerry's decision to select her husband.
But Edwards is also acutely attuned to the abnormalities that descend (like Secret Service agents) when you achieve the rank of public property. This is apparent as she struggles to come up with something about herself that is not yet known, that will enrich and advance her profile, somehow.
"I had a banana!" she says, raising her voice in a burst of faux revelation about what she ate earlier that morning.
And now, The Washington Post has learned, she is eating two eggs over light on toast, no potatoes.
Back to the shorthand bio: In 1996, John and Elizabeth Edwards's 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car crash, a blow that spurred John into politics and Elizabeth out of her law practice. Wade Edwards would have turned 25 today. Elizabeth often thinks of how much Wade, who had urged John to go into politics, would be loving all this. It's all so bittersweet, she says, "the adjective that will describe the whole rest of our lives, if we're lucky."
At 48, Elizabeth bore a daughter, Emma Claire (now 6) and, at 50, a son, Jack (now 4). Both were conceived with the help of fertility treatments, which we know because that, too, is part of the standard shorthand -- as well as the tidbit that she dyes the gray out of her hair, struggles with her weight and is commonly described as approachable, outspoken and "real."
Edwards looks like any other woman eating breakfast in New York, except she has guys with earphones and black armored SUVs parked outside. She sits alone with a reporter -- no press aide or entourage, just a tape recorder that she sets down on the table. She talks fast and giggles easily and is absolutely convincing when she says she can walk up to any stranger in this restaurant and strike up a discussion. She has a comfort with new faces that she says derives from her childhood as a military brat.
Edwards is the daughter of a Navy pilot and lived in a dozen places by the time she was 18. "There is no better experience" in preparing someone for the madness of a presidential campaign, she says. "None of these people frighten me in any way," she says, surveying the half-filled diner.
Her eyes are blue, big and busy, conveying a presence and a sense of wakefulness. "Rest is overrated," is one of Edwards's mantras. She sleeps, on average, about five hours a night, and rarely for consecutive hours.
She is a lifelong insomniac. As a child in Japan, she would lie awake with a transistor radio hidden under her pillow and listen to "Gunsmoke" and "Have Gun -- Will Travel" on Armed Forces Radio. She could never just close her eyes and turn off her mind. These days, she reads, watches C-SPAN or goes shopping online.
"I go periodically to the computer and Google my husband," she says.
This tendency accelerated in the days that preceded Kerry's selection of his running mate. On the night before he announced his decision, Elizabeth Edwards fell asleep around 11 and was awakened at 12:30 a.m. by a call from their older daughter, Cate, who had just graduated from Princeton and was in the process of moving. Elizabeth got out of bed and compiled lists of things to do. She wasn't tired. She went online and Googled. She found the now-laughable (but then unsettling) New York Post headline that said Kerry would pick Richard Gephardt. She read this closely. She noted that the story was not sourced, that it said only, "The New York Post has learned" and that it didn't have a byline. She decided not to pay attention to the New York Post. Edwards has a sharp eye for the authentic and is easily offended by artifice. She was militant during the primaries about not putting John in any strange hats, poses or contrived settings. Once, the Edwards for President staff wanted to do a photo op of John flipping pancakes, but it didn't get past Elizabeth. "She said, 'He never does that in real life, why should he do it now?' " says Elizabeth's brother Jay Anania, a filmmaker who lives in New York. (Elizabeth notes that the pancake idea didn't get past John either.)
When people rave about how "real" Elizabeth Edwards is, it could be code for any number of things: It could be that she offsets the smooth, telegenic bearing of her husband. Or that she struggles for the balance between family and career, or that she looks like a real neighbor with whom you could have coffee (if she drank coffee), or that she calls herself "the anti-Barbie" and has dabbled in the South Beach Diet.
She is married to a multimillionaire trial lawyer-turned-senator, but Edwards is at her most impassioned when she describes herself as a player in a "regular American life." "John always uses the word regular," she says. "He used to say, 'That guy's a regular guy.' It's the nicest thing he could say about them. It means there's no artifice there."
Elizabeth Edwards was reading a newspaper story this morning about how Kerry needs to get a dog, how it would enhance his image. She is smirking as she mentions this "silliness, when you do something just for the impression it gives." (In fact, John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry do own a dog, a German shepherd named Kim.)
She is fully aware that most people, if they bother to learn about her at all, will do it in shorthand form. They may learn that she was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and that she's 5-feet-2 and that Emma Claire likes Dora the Explorer and Jack likes the Wiggles and that both kids have outgrown the Teletubbies.
And maybe one or two will notice when Edwards gets up from the breakfast table and heads off to buy an outfit or three for the convention, "something I'll look good in." She leaves with a determined smile and no fuss and a battalion of Secret Service agents who materialize out of nowhere, one of whom is asked by a waiter on his way out, "Is that lady famous?"