The new Edwards TV spot, in which John cites Elizabeth's breast cancer as making the couple all the more committed to their White House run, will once again have some folks charging that the candidate is exploiting his wife's terminal illness for political gain.
Maybe. But this criticism seems to miss the fundamental nature of the Edwardses's relationship to politics. Whatever John's ego and ambition (and obviously a run for POTUS requires massive amounts of both), these people need politics. Not in the politics-defines-me way that Bill Clinton needs it. But rather, the Edwardses seem to use the energy of politics--the sense of mission, of camaraderie, of battling in the trenches for a cause--to help them cope with their personal demons.
Elizabeth in particular is a fighter. (Hey, the woman seeks out web sites where her husband is being trashed in order to mix it up with the enemy.) In her book, Saving Graces, she talks a lot about the maddening impotence she felt after her son Wade's death in 1996. (She even puts a semi-optimistic gloss on her 2004 breast cancer diagnosis by noting that, unlike Wade's death, it was a battle she and John could wage--"a dragon we could slay.") The Edwardses' have talked about John's initially running for office as a way to make Wade proud; spun slightly differently, their effort could be seen as a concrete challenge to tackle that enabled them to work through the pain of their loss. In her book, Elizabeth directly addresses the charge she got out of the 2004 race: "...I thrived on his fight; it had fed me to campaign beside him these past two years. I needed it, and in the months ahead, when I would sit so tired and alone or with him beside me, I missed it...But it was over, and all I had to fight was cancer, a fight that would only take from me and from him and would never nourish me, or him."
Today, facing a diagnosis of incurable cancer, what could be a better, more distracting, more inspirational fight than another battle for the White House? It may well be that the Edwardses use their personal tragedies to boost John's political position. But what strikes me as more interesting is their use of John's political career to help endure their personal tragedies.