by Meredith O’Brien
The life of a political spouse isn’t easy in this harsh, often cruel 24/7 media climate. And for Elizabeth Edwards, who passed away this past week, it was particularly ruthless.
Edwards, 61, wife of two-time presidential candidate John Edwards, struggled with breast cancer for six years. She tried -- in the face of incurable cancer -- to soldier on, raise her young children and support her husband’s political efforts. When she became aware that her husband of three decades had an affair, she dealt with it by writing about it. (This was before she learned he’d fathered a child with the woman and the Edwardses separated.) And for her troubles, she was mercilessly lambasted, called everything from a “bad mother” who hurt her children by writing about her husband’s betrayal to a “crazywoman.”
While I felt a great deal of sadness for her three children after learning that she had died, I also felt a twinge of anger that during the last years of her life she had to put up with so much crap from loud-mouthed, vitriolic writers, pundits and bloggers who knew not what it was like to stand in her shoes and to still remain standing. At the same time, I felt a deep admiration for her because I don’t think I could’ve handled myself with the publically graceful strength she exhibited time and again.
I recalled the time when a blogger  said that she hated the fact that Edwards took her young children along with her on the presidential campaign trail instead of staying at home with them. “Elizabeth, I don’t like the choices you’ve made,” a blogger sniped, casually lobbing the label “terrible mother” at her. “Get off the freaking campaign trail.”
Now me, I think I would’ve been devastated by reading that garbage. Edwards had already buried one child – a son who died in a car accident at age 16 – and was looking her own death in the face. To be told I was being a bad mom to those two little ones in my limited time would’ve been crushing. But Edwards gave it back to the blogger saying:
“With all due respect, what you would choose to do is relevant only once: When you choose how to spend your remaining days. I made my choice, because of our lives it was a public choice, but the choice doesn’t belong to the public, it belongs to me . . . You don’t get to say I am a terrible mother because you think you wouldn’t make my choice in my situation.”
I was in awe of her strength of conviction.
Then the news of John Edwards’ extramarital affair with a campaign videographer came out in dribs and drabs, followed later by rumors that he’d gotten the woman pregnant. Even as Elizabeth Edwards continued to defend her husband, she wrote a memoir  and told Oprah about how her marriage was weathering his infidelity . . . before she and John publically admitted that the baby was his and she realized it was more than a fling. (The other woman, Rielle Hunter, told GQ in April  that she loves John and asserted that Elizabeth was an abusive spouse.) During the publicity tour for her book Resilience , Elizabeth Edwards was criticized for addressing her husband’s affair in the book and in interviews as people complained that it made the scandal newsworthy again and would prove hurtful her children.
Seriously. SHE was portrayed as the bad guy. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote , “. . . Saint Elizabeth has dragged him back into the public square for a flogging . . . [the book is] just a gratuitous peek into their lives, and one that exposes her kids by peddling more dregs about their personal family life.”
My blood boiled at the nerve these individuals had to eviscerate a woman who trying to deal with her grief via the written word, through the cathartic venue of the memoir to make peace with where her life had taken her. Some people drink, some smoke, some overeat, some do assorted crazy things. Elizabeth Edwards wrote a book to work through her issues, and because she was a politician’s wife, she was just asking for the media to pig pile on top of her, right?
In January 2010, Elizabeth Edwards withstood more disparagement, this time in the form of the juicy political expose that was the bestselling book Game Change  which used Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, as well as Elizabeth Edwards and Cindy McCain as punching bags . Cowardly, unnamed sources told the authors that despite Edwards’ “everywoman” public persona, she was “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.” An excerpt of the book published in New York Magazine  contained a series of brutal cartoonish depictions of Edwards resembling an unhinged monster, fingers curled up like claws while she bellowed into a phone that stories about John’s affair were killing her.” HE had the affair, yet SHE was the monster.
What was it with people and their misguided beliefs that it was okay and perhaps even civic-minded to absolutely trash women who are politicians or are married (or related) to them? These weren’t people expressing political and policy differences with Edwards; she was engaged on policy issues, namely health care reform and likely would’ve welcomed vigorous policy debate. These were attacks on how she was living her life, on who she was as a person. Yet Elizabeth Edwards was dignified throughout.
While reading stories about her after news of Edwards’ death broke, I came across a column on Slate  by Connie Schultz, a columnist, author and wife of a U.S. Senator. She was thankful that in spite of everything that happened to Edwards, she was a positive, fearless role model for fellow political spouses. “. . . [S]he refused to be a victim. She would not disappear,” Schultz said. “And yet many people wanted to know the most sordid details of her collapsing marriage did not want to hear about it from her. It was one thing to laugh with friends and colleagues over the idiotic behavior of her husband, but it was an ordeal to watch the wife who adored him so publicly wail, just as publicly, over the pain of his betrayal.”
“You don’t have to be a politician’s wife, as I am to understand how Elizabeth helped redefine the brand,” Schultz observed, “but if you are married to an elected official, your gratitude runs particularly deep.”
Elizabeth Edwards had the last word with her final Facebook post  made public one day before she died:
“You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that . . . but I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious . And for that I am grateful.”
And I, for one, am grateful to have witnessed a powerful, flesh-and-blood symbol of resilience who stand up bravely in the face of withering criticism and circumstance that would’ve emotionally hobbled many of us.