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Friday, January 29, 2010

A few (OK, maybe not so few) words about the Edwards debacle
Posted by Jill | 6:30 AM
At first I thought I'd just let this sit, because a) the story is finally, mercifully starting to fade in the press, and b) we don't practice tabloid blogging here. But I was talking to someone the other day about how disappointing Barack Obama has been in so many ways, and I said, "Well, what do I know? Look who I supported in the primaries."

In August 2007, I received an e-mail from an old friend from the 2004 Dean campaign, informing me that Elizabeth Edwards was doing a book signing in Ridgewood, and they wanted to have a fundraiser for the Edwards campaign beforehand, and did I know anyone who'd be willing to host it. And before I'd even had a chance to think, I'd the reply button and said I'd host it.

Here's the thing: my house is not at all set up to host something like this. We bought it in 1996, a house where nothing had been done with it at all since 1975. Most of the money we put into it until this year was on structural things -- siding, windows, furnace, electrical work, gutters, etc. The cosmetics inside are still a disaster after almost 14 years. I still have a half-unfinished cabinet reface job going in the kitchen, we still have the ugly red carpet from the previous owners of the house, both bathrooms are in desperate need of not just updating, but gutting and replacing, and so on. All this will be taken care of at some point, but the point is that the interior of my house is hardly the kind of place that makes one want to invite in a bunch of strangers plus the wife of a presidential candidate, especially when said wife and said candidate live in the kind of bigass house that now appears they built specifically so they would not have to be together in it.

And so on an August night, cars were lined up all along my block, two volunteers from the Edwards campaign came over and decided how to traffic people around, two dear friends from town who used to have a deli brought a coffee pot, a table, and other things to set up food, and Elizabeth Edwards came to my house. And she was just as nice as can be. She didn't care one bit about the half-finished reface job or the ugly red carpet or the newel post that needs refinishing. And at the time, as all the cars pulled away, I said, "That may be the single coolest thing I have ever done." Somewhere in my house, I forget where at the moment, is a photograph of me with Elizabeth Edwards. It's one of the few photographs ever taken of me in my adult life where I don't look like a troll.

The book Game Change paints an extremely unflattering picture of Elizabeth Edwards as some kind of shrieking harpy who deserved to have her husband out fucking some flake who believes her baby is the reincarnation of a Buddha. Judith Warner in the New York Times seems relieved that the idea that you can't be loved if you aren't thin, young, and botoxed remains intact, going along with the new myth that Elizabeth Edwards was so intolerable that she drove her husband into the arms of another woman.

I'm not sure why it's become so necessary to take Elizabeth Edwards down. I don't think any of us ever bought that she was a saint. What she was for those of us who are middle-aged and not beauties is a high-profile exception to the rule that once you are older and no longer beautiful, and not resorting to false means in an ultimately futile attempt to look young, you are worthless. And that's why the viciousness of the very same media that dismissed her husband as a lying, cheating scumbag (which we now know he is) turning so equally viciously on her strikes me as piling on.

As always in such cases, we rely on Kate Harding as a rare voice of sanity:
A Public Policy Polling survey taken after "Game Change" came out found Elizabeth Edwards' popularity at 46 percent, a 12-point drop since May. (Small consolation: Hubby's now at a record-breaking low of 15 percent.) So now, just as she's finally getting free of that philandering son of a millworker (and, after the tequila shots are digested, facing single motherhood and a fatal illness at age 60), she's also dealing with an unprecedented hit to her own reputation. It just seems so unfair. Tracy Clark-Flory wrote of the Edwardses' split yesterday, "She's better than this absurdly tawdry scandal, and it isn't hers to endure." But it has been hers to endure for ages now, and the final insult is the latest buzz -- that actually, maybe she isn't better than all this.

Maybe she is and maybe she isn't -- how would most of us ever know? Books like "Game Change" and "The Politician," regardless of their accuracy, remind us that the public faces of politicians and their families can be worlds away from the private ones, and our opinions about who's fit to lead the country are often based at least as much on carefully manipulated emotions as facts. It's entirely possible that the image of Saint Elizabeth was nothing but the smartest, most effective P.R. move the Edwards campaign ever pulled off. But I find it hard to believe it was all an illusion -- they can take away her reputation as a gentle stoic, but not the intelligence or demonstrated fortitude or public grace upon which her compelling persona was built. And while I'm still irritated that people are trashing her even as her soon-to-be-ex-husband's list of confessed and alleged misdeeds grows ever longer and more headsmackable -- a sex tape, are you kidding me, John Edwards? -- maybe losing a pedestal you've been forced to stand on for years can ultimately be as liberating as losing an endlessly thoughtless and embarrassing spouse. You can't be an acknowledged saint and a living human being at the same time, after all. So maybe all of this -- the separation and the wave of public criticism -- will clear the way for Elizabeth Edwards to be more fully herself, whatever that really means. I'm pretty sure I'd still like to have a beer with her.

I don't know why we as a society so cruelly judge women whose husbands are cheaters. Perhaps it's the way we insulate ourselves against the uncomfortable notion that our own husbands could cheat too. If we can somehow make it HER fault, then we can avoid HER mistakes and inoculate ourselves. WE won't be controlling. WE will get botox and somehow find two hours to spend at the gym every day. WE will never gain weight. WE will never look old. WE have control.

Except that we don't.

I think one of the reasons that Hillary Clinton took such crap when her husband cheated on her so publicly is because if we could blame it on some idea that she too is a harpy, a castrating bitch, it means she "deserved" to have her husband cheat on her. And if we can paint these high-profile women as deserving of being treated like crap by her husbands, there's something we can do to prevent it in our own lives. There ARE things we can do, of course, but they have to do with attention and caring and affection, not botox and Pilates.

Look, we're all guilty of taking our marriages for granted at times. And when we do, that's what opens the door for someone else who's willing to pay attention to step in. It takes work to make a marriage work; it doesn't just happen. And one would hope that for those of us not in the public eye, if there's something we need that we're not getting, we trust our spouses enough to ask for it. But I don't know if high profile public marriages work the same way. It's like being the wife of a professional athlete (see also: Tiger Woods). It's almost as if cheating goes with the package and you're tacitly signing on to look the other way when it happens. But when you marry a law student, you don't necessarily know that he's going to run for President. So neither Elizabeth Edwards nor Hillary Clinton signed onto that bargain the way Elin Nordegren could have realized she was doing.

What bothers me most about l'affaire Edwards, and what sticks in my craw most, is how John Edwards bounded into a breakout session at Yearly Kos 2007 and the first words out of his mouth were "I just talked to Elizabeth, and she's doing great" -- and the room erupted in cheers and applause. And he knew then it was a sham. And then I think about Elizabeth Edwards, standing on the stair landing in my house, talking about "John's vision for a better America" -- the vision that at that time neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton was addressing, and I think "She knew even then, and she continued to campaign for him." And then I'm tempted to feel betrayed by her too, until I remember further how fast she was talking, as if she was in some kind of a race -- a race against time, a race against her illness, a race against the reckoning of the wreckage of her marriage that she knew she would inevitably have to face.

In that summer of 2007, when I longed for another true progressive candidate like Howard Dean, and Barack Obama hadn't yet started with the kind of progressive rhetoric we'd see later (the kind he abandoned immediately upon taking office), and Hillary Clinton was at Yearly Kos saying "Lobbyists are Americans too", John Edwards was the closest thing we had at that point.

And what I remember most about that August evening is how gracious Elizabeth Edwards was and how she didn't even seem to notice the ratty carpet and the grubby, loose newel post and the half-finished reface job in the kitchen.


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Blogger skywind said...
Damn, Jill! I wish I could write like you.

I still have that picture of you with Elizabeth, and I still think it was very cool, and you were (and still are) very cool. Every time I hear about this in the media I think of you; I can't imagine how disappointing the whole sordid situation must be to people in your position. I was not aware, however, that Elizabeth was also being trashed in the media. It doesn't surprise me, though--I think it's the same reason women blame a rape victim for her own assault, and why women jurors in sexual assault cases tend to acquit defendants. If we can convince ourselves that she did something to bring it on herself, we won't have to live in fear that it could happen to us too. Because we will make better choices. We will be smarter. That'll work.

Blogger Unknown said...
Amen. Thank you for that, Jill.

Blogger Jayhawk said...
Jill, I concur with much of what you say and appreciate your feeling for her, but the fact remains that this woman, for a sustained period of time told us how wonderful a man John Edwards was and held him before us as the best choice for President, knowing him to be of despicable character and a liar of monstrous degree, knowing that his character flaws were inevitably going to be immensly destructive to the political party of which he was a leading member.

That does not make her an object of pity. That makes her a damned poor judge of character, and a liar herself. That makes her someone who was complicit in massively misleading and damaging people who trusted her; not just her husband, her.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Beautiful post Jill, hearfelt and lyric writing. Thank you.

Blogger Narya said...
I have assiduously avoided reading all of these accounts. In general I do not care what people do with their genitalia, unless (a) I'm involved with their genitalia as well, or (b) people make pronouncements about what others should do with genitalia and the pronouncements differ from what the pronouncers actually do (i.e., when people are hypocrites about this).

And, really, I am getting so very tired of women in public life being limited to whore or harpy or saint as possible roles--because all of those roles are about vaginas, not about brains.

In any case, thank you for a thoughtful post.

Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...
beautiful jill. i too was an edwards supporter at the beginning. not fervent or anything, i had even seen barack speak at ASU campus.

anyway, things started to roll for them. i was tagged to play the owner's suite at the NBA allstar game in vegas, the edwards were attending.

this was right after the dustup with melissa and amanda being potty moufs who offended that rat bastard god drunk son of a bitch donoghue to the core of his weasely little soul. they were canned unceremoniously and john even took a moment to use people who say fuck (i say that and lots fucking worse daily on my blogs) and shit like that cheapening the public discourse.

so, there i am slinging my jazzy guitar in the owner's suite at the allstar game. i get a break and i see my chance. elizabeth edwards is over by the iced shrimp mountain. i sidle up to her and very sotto voce say "melissa mcEwan is a friend of mine. she deserved better from ya'll" and i toddled off to finish my break with the rest of the help.

later, while we were playing (and so were the NBA allstars but that's life in the owner's suite) i saw her speaking into john's ear, and glancing my way.

i must say, wihtout meeting him, not even going through the smile and shake line, that he's impossibly handsome, impeccably groomed, and seems to be sincere when he speaks. he's probably done enough self deceptions that deceiving us is a piece of cake.

i'm not ready to write john off quite yet. he has done, and continues to do some very good things. ever since katrina hit he's funded a team of senior law students and newly minted lawyers who work for free in places like the lower 9th to help people make insurors adhere to their contracts, and to sift through the mountains of bizarre and confusing paperwork that needs to be filed before any reconstructions can be accomplished.

that's the kind of thing he should do. there lies redemption for him.

she needs no such redemption. johnnie boy's just lucky he didn't do that cheating shit on a rez princess. apache girls carry knives and stuff, and they know just where to fucking cut to boot. (part of the miss navajo pageant is slaughtering, butchering a sheep and bbq'ing its ass. it would take an indin girl about three minutes cut edwards down to manageable size)

i was impressed with my brief encounter with elizabeth. if she were running i'd be there.

Anonymous Richard Blair said...
Beautiful, Jill. I remember well when you were frantic online about the event.

I really can't add much to what you so eloquently expressed. There were many of us (me included) who were taken in by a message that resonated so loudly in our progressive souls.

And it hurts. It really hurts to find that our passion for these flawed people was not only unrewarded, but ultimately undeserved.

What was the passion really about, though? It was about the message, as much as the messengers. We can't lose sight of that. Ever.

Anonymous Susie from Philly said...
Nice work, Jill. Since we're all adults here, we might be able to expand our brains enough to make room for the notion that people can do really shitty things and still be basically decent, honorable people.

As someone who's seen a few marriages fall apart after cancer, I'd like to remind people that the sick spouse often distances themselves from the healthy spouse, and vice versa. It's a complex reaction and I don't have to stereotype those people or judge how some people deal with unthinkable pain.

Can we also acknowledge that lying about adultery is in a somewhat different class than lying about your taxes, or your policy proposals?

I don't doubt that John Edwards loved his wife. Let's not act as if adultery can't co-exist with married love -- it does, and in more marriages than you'll ever know. Affairs are usually an attempt to cope with something and while the cheater may not choose the most honorable way, neither is it the worst. It is simply misguided.

Blogger Bob said...
Thanks for the defense. I believe she had a real committment to health care reform & family issues during that brief campaign. If she was phony in what she advocating, you would've picked up on it. John Edwards put a really good platform out there on the website. It was "family values" for rest of us. But the self & collective deception of the campaign was mind-boggling.

Anonymous charles pierce said...
This may be the best blog post I've ever read.
Thanks, Jill.

Blogger Melina said...
Beautiful Jill...just fantastic writing from the heart.

The thing that disappoints me the most is the account by Elizabeth herself of when she supposedly found out, and it was a pivotal moment, and she encouraged John to keep up the facade in order to wield his power in dropping out. In continuing this sham and still attempting to win the primaries they both took the chance, the very likely possibility, that this would come out in a presidential election, and if that happened we would have McCain and Palin.

Its one thing to manipulate The Two America's and a focus on poverty into the platform of an Obama or Clinton, but clearly another to take the chance that something could happen to mess up the other candidates and spring him into the top spot. One slip or blunder by a candidate can change the game within a day or an hour...and they decided to take that chance together; actually taking a chance for all of us.

Its a huge disappointment that John picked such a flake and its so fucking predictable that he would gravitate to someone so opposite of the woman who had been his intellectual rival and wife. There is something about these political unions that is scary contrived and competitive, where the wife almost has to take a backseat and if she happens to be a smart powerhouse herself, it can become pathological....and I do think that people can tell the kind of ambitious young lawyer they are marrying. It must be apparent in all that community organizing etc...they are the kind of people who are told that they should run for office all the time.

I would love it if Elizabeth hadn't entered into a pact of secrecy with John but rather had grabbed the nearest board and chased him through the crowd like Elin Woods with her golf club. But she didn't; she told him to keep it quiet for the time being.

This is some sort of shared delusion...and I feel sorry for them both...and for the country because we have lost someone who could have been a great leader if his personal problems hadn't gotten in the way.

Great post....I wish I had met her too...I still admire her...I cant hold against people what they do in desperation, but it makes me wonder at the depths of mental illness hidden in some of the seemingly strongest unions.

Blogger Batocchio said...
Great piece, Jill, thanks.

I liked most of Edwards' policies. I thought the Two Americas speech was great - a sharp critique mixed with a hopeful message. It was also refreshing to hear a politician actually talk about the poor, because that's pretty rare. John Edwards admitted he was wrong on Iraq, and helped shaped that conversation in the debates. The Edwards campaign also forced health care to be a major issue.

While there's often some level of bullshit to politicians, and plenty of arrogance, I was/am genuinely surprised that John Edwards could be so amazingly reckless, especially after Clinton. They might have known they couldn't win, but this scandal would have been crippling had Edwards been the frontrunner. The stakes were/are just too damn high for that. As for Elizabeth Edwards, I'm inclined to cut her far more slack, for many of the reasons you describe.

Blogger LarryB said...
I enjoyed reading a woman's perspective on this story. I, too, find the publicity and scandal surrounding this to be worth little of my time. I was a John Edwards supporter. He actually served to change the nature of the campaign when he talked so eloquently about the poor. I think both those folks are comfortable with non-elegant surroundings since that really is how they grew up. Maybe if their lifestyle were less wealthy, they'd still be together.

As a male, I think I can see what happened to John. The temptation was just too much. He was thinking with something other than his brain. The idea that humans behave logically is shown by what happened in Mass. We're an emotional breed and do some really stupid things.

I do wish for John and Elizabeth some level of peace with what has happened. Reconciliation is probably out of the question, but forgiveness on some level is important to their well-being. They had a hell of a track record until the wheels came off.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
please let us recall basics: john edwards had a real shot as the democratic nominee for presidency. then he had a real shot as the nominee for vice-presidency. if he had been on the ticket and the affair then exposed, it likely would have dashed democratic chances for victory in nov '08.

THAT is the true recklessness of his actions (as well as his enabler in chief, elizabeth).

Anonymous DB said...
Wouldn't it be nice if we could finally stop giving so much attention to this kind of personal bullshit? I wasn't going to vote for Edwards for Pope, and we're all flawed. And Elizabeth Edwards has a right to re-part John's hair with a 9-iron, as far as I'm concerned.

However, it's interesting to note that so many folks *wanted* to believe in the Saint Elizabeth image. (I'm one of them.)

These issues are linked. Our politicians and celebrities aspire to sit atop pedestals, and we obligingly put them there, knowing there is nowhere to go but down.

We betray a lack of maturity of thought in this manner.

What's needed is not a cynical, "fuck 'em, they're all corrupt" attitude, but a realistic belief that everyone we vote for, or against, is deeply flawed in some way. Like us.

We accept our own flaws, and those of our friends. Why must we believe that our political heroes are pure, when we are not?

Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat this cycle again and again, and the only winners will be the bottom-feeding writers of alleged tell-all books.

Blogger Unknown said...
I know this piece is primarily about Elizabeth, but here's what I don't understand: how is it that Edwards is "a lying, cheating scumbag" for lying about something that had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the country while Obama isn't an even bigger "lying, cheating scumbag" for lying about restoring the Constitution as the rule of law and fixing our disastrous health care system? The sort of irrational judgmentalism you're leveling at how other people run their marriage smacks of the same sanctimonious horseshit that you're criticizing the media for directing at Elizabeth.

Blogger : smintheus :: said...
As appalling as the media's trashing has been of Elizabeth Edwards as a harpy, in her public life she deserves a hell of a lot of blame for facilitating and even encouraging her husband's pursuit of the presidency after she knew about his affair. It was bound to come out sooner or later, so the two of them recklessly endangered the Democrats' electoral prospects.