Elizabeth Edwards likes to tell other women that they're pretty. In her book, Saving Graces, she describes a classmate as a "pretty waif" and a hairdresser as having a "small, pretty face." A young girl who died in a car crash was somebody's "pretty daughter." A loyal fund-raiser's unnamed wife is "distractingly beautiful." Recently, she was chatting with supporters at a house party in New Hampshire, held in a living room crammed with antique dolls and interested locals. The last group waiting in the receiving line included two young men and a thin, 20-something blonde with a pixie haircut and bright blue eyes. "Aren't you pretty!" Edwards remarked. The young woman didn't know what to say. "She is!" Edwards repeated. "Isn't she pretty?" she asked the two men. The woman seemed flustered. She forgot whatever she wanted to tell Edwards and just muttered, "Thank you," instead.
A similar thing happened at a recent forum for presidential spouses moderated by Maria Shriver, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's glamorous wife. Ann Romney, Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Jeri Thompson, and Elizabeth Edwards sat around the table discussing their experiences on the campaign. When it was her turn to speak, Elizabeth said, "My gosh, you are all so beautiful. Which one doesn't belong? I feel a little bit like that--one of these things just doesn't belong." The remark was typical of Elizabeth Edwards-- spontaneous, unfiltered, generous, and a little domineering: It takes a unique combination of vulnerability and supreme confidence to say something like that on a stage. The main effect of her compliment was to set her apart. They were a group of fresh faces one could marvel at, and she was the old hand, a woman to be dealt with on her own terms.
To anyone in the audience, Elizabeth would not have stood out as unbeautiful. A few months ago, she announced that her breast cancer, first diagnosed in 2004, had returned and was now considered incurable. Yet she does not look ill or any less put together than she ever did--at the spouses' forum, she wore her hair in a flattering bob and a trimming black suit. The only hint of her illness was a little pink ribbon pinned to her lapel. Wherever she goes, people ask how she's feeling, and she always says, "Great! How are you feeling?" She still can't resist an outlet mall and still makes fun of how badly some of the young people on the campaign dress.
No one who knows Elizabeth would describe her as someone who spends a lot of time in front of the mirror. Instead, the computer is her time suck. "I had to turn it off so I could get my Christmas tree decorated," she tells me. Elizabeth is up most of the night reading blogs, e-mails, and policy books. She has "the best mind I've ever known," says her brother, Jay Anania, a filmmaker in New York--restless, insatiable, and able to retain and then discourse in great detail on a vast range of subjects, from regressive tax policy to stem cells to the social history of the Internet to North Korea to William Blake to the Patriots to the best place to buy snow boots on sale. Once, Anania asked her the same question everyone asks: Don't you ever sleep? "Sleep is overrated, " she said.
Elizabeth has such an affinity for bloggers because, temperamentally, she is just like one. For a political wife, she is unusually free with personal confessions. Since her husband ran for Senate in North Carolina in 1998, few of the family's most painful memories have remained sacred and private. We know that their son, Wade, died at 16 when a freak wind blew him off the road. We know that she had two more children, Emma Claire and Jack, at 48 and 50, respectively, after many IVF treatments. We know that she found a lump in her right breast in the shower, around the end of the last presidential campaign. We also know that she recently discovered her cancer had returned and spread to her bones when she and John were lying in bed; he put his head on her shoulder and "reached his arm over me to pull me close," she writes in her book, and then she winced and heard a pop--a fractured rib.
This stream of revelations has had an entirely different effect on both of their reputations. For Elizabeth, it's bolstered the voters' impressions that she is genuine, trustworthy, like a best girlfriend or even an Oprah figure, whose confessions of personal weakness only increase their admiration and awe. For John, it only seems to confirm suspicions that he is the slick trial lawyer adept at packaging pain and using it to his advantage. No matter how many times he puts on jeans and a work shirt, John Edwards can't shake his image as the "spoiled candidate who looks too good," as one middle-aged man confessed to Elizabeth at the house party in New Hampshire. The man later apologized to Elizabeth and explained that he'd only brought up the subject because he felt comfortable asking her anything. But this only raised the more important question: Is Elizabeth the perfect surrogate, or the person who makes it impossible to forget that her husband is the pretty one?
Elizabeth says she overshares with everyone because "I can't imagine being another way." Her friends all describe her the same way voters at a house party do: "She's a very direct, no-bull kind of person," says Ellen Maynard, an old friend from Raleigh. "She doesn't turn it on and turn it off, or put on airs." Glenn Bergenfield, a friend from college who introduced her to John, recalls going to dinner with Elizabeth's parents once and thinking, "In this family, there isn't much room for me to say, 'I don't feel like talking about that.'"
Elizabeth had the kind of childhood that could have made a different person lonely. Her father was a reconnaissance pilot, so she and her siblings moved around constantly from the United States to naval bases in Japan. But she took after him: He was gregarious and outgoing, always filling their house with people. In her book, she describes him as someone always "reaching for connections" and living his life "on a stage," and she was the same way. "It never occurred to me that there could be people who were shy or reclusive," she writes.
When she was at Mary Washington College, Bergenfield introduced her to John, although they were an unlikely match. Elizabeth was a peace activist and a "meddler," according to Bergenfield. John was quiet and serious, and wore a bowtie to their first date. She was a literature major who had traveled the world. He was studying business so he could take over the mill where his father worked. He had never left the South.
They both became lawyers and eventually moved to Raleigh and had two kids, Wade and Cate. In their neighborhood, Elizabeth was known for her insanely elaborate kid projects. Once, Wade and some friends wanted to be a golf course for Halloween, so she grew nine separate turfs of grass and somehow attached them onto clothing; one never got watered so it turned into the sand pit.
She made friends with everyone, including the people standing in line at the Home Depot. "Her house was Grand Central Station," recalls Maynard, filled day and night with groups of Wade's friends. "I'm used to bunches of kids I know and some I don't know seeing me in my nightgown," says Elizabeth. Other parents relied on her to be unflappable and incapable of embarrassment. She would tell the kids to get a haircut, or stop lying, or explain to them the power of a kiss (as opposed to anything more). When there was a masturbation incident at school, Elizabeth was charged with explaining to the boys that it was all very natural and nothing to be ashamed of.
Then, one day, she and Cate came home and there was a state trooper at the house. "You have to tell me he's alive," she said immediately. The family was about to spend spring break at the beach and Wade had gone on ahead with some friends. He wasn't drunk or speeding. A gust of wind hit the car and he flipped off the road. Elizabeth discovered then that she was the kind of person who grieves like she lives: in public. They made it through because "people came, that's what's important," she writes. Neighbors and friends stayed all day and "they were back in the morning," she writes. The house was always "noisy with visitors." Bergenfield recalls the day before the funeral when 1,800 people came out, "not so much offering comfort but expecting it," from Elizabeth, who looked each one in the eye.
Wade had introduced her to the Internet; they had bid on sports cards together on an AOL group. Now, in the evenings, she went back to it for support. On GriefNet, in a subgroup of bereaved parents, she found her community. She found out she could more easily confess certain things to strangers than to her close friends. When people suggested she go to grief recovery, she wrote to her new online friend, Gordon Livingston, "How can I tell them there is no cure for me?" In the book, she quotes extensively from heartbreaking e-mails she sent to other grieving parents: "I used to think that the greatest gift you could give a child was the sense that anything was possible. Now that gift has a horrid twist: anything is possible." Or: "I don't know how many days without him I have left inside me."
Then she quotes another e-mail, sent to her by another grieving parent: "I must let the dead boy go." The words resonated. Barely one paragraph later, without transition or explanation, she writes, "It was politics now." She and her husband had suddenly "turned our faces northward, to Washington," and John was running for Senate. This is the first she's mentioned Washington, or politics.
"It was sort of that way in real life," she says of the absence of transition. "It's not necessarily because Wade had died," she says. "But it's easier to radically change directions when your life comes to a total halt. People ask about the connection [between Wade's death and John running for office]. I don't think there's ever really any way to know that exactly."
On a warm, clear day in November, supporter Dorothy O'Callaghan stood at the entrance to the Carroll County courthouse in Ossipee, in central New Hampshire. She said she had come to see Elizabeth Edwards "because I just feel so comfortable with her, like she's my next-door neighbor or a friend I like to have coffee with." Last time she saw her, she noticed Elizabeth had gotten a haircut and shouted out, "Nice hair!" "Hillary is equally as intelligent and capable but I don't see myself saying to Hillary, 'Nice hair,'" O'Callaghan told me.
Once, during the countless hours she spends watching C-SPAN, Elizabeth saw a clip of a candidate's wife speaking to supporters. In Elizabeth's summary, the wife's speech was some version of: We've been married a long time, my husband was a great senator, I love him, and we have lots of grandchildren. "It was painful to watch," she said. "I don't ever, ever, ever, want to be that person. If people ask me to come out and speak, then I should be able to speak."
Inside the courthouse, she stood in her pink quilted jacket and slacks addressing a crowd of about 100, heavy on middle-aged women. She told the audience they should vote for John because of his health care plan and went into great detail about how it spreads risks and covers preexisting conditions. The speech ended with a story about a woman she had met in Cleveland. The woman was clearly dressed for work, in heels and stockings. After an event, the woman came up and whispered in Elizabeth's ear that she had found a lump in her breast but was afraid to see a doctor because she had no health insurance. The woman then slipped away. But Elizabeth still saw it as a hopeful story. "She obviously felt that if she could just make her way over and whisper in the right person's ear then maybe something would change."
During the three events she did that day, supporters asked her about farm subsidies, pharmaceutical companies, Iran, flag-burning amendments. She was never stumped and rarely gave an answer shorter than 15 minutes. A question about heating bills lead to a lecture that strayed from localized electrical grids to geothermal readiness to Iraq. Sometimes she got a little too Beltway-- quoting Joshua Kurlantzick's Charm Offensive or Jim Wallis's God's Politics or sniping at Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos by name. At the very least, she didn't pander. One man complained that people just wanted to drive their Hummers and SUVs, and the campaign should say, "Hey, you slobs, take a look at yourselves in the mirror." She squinted at him and said, "That's not, like, a winning formula."
She got her toughest question at her final event in New Hampshire. "There is a perception out there," said one middle-aged man, "that John is an ambulance-chaser, you know, that he has a large house and lots of money. I constantly hear from other voters that he's a hypocrite."
Elizabeth did not take offense but gave a charming and convincing defense of John's populism:
The great advocates for the poor have always been people of means, like FDR. The question is not where you are on the ladder, because John is clearly at the top of the ladder. The question is, do you understand the journey? John was born into a family that was rich in a lot of things, but money was not one of them. Maybe it's because he looks back and says, "I was able to climb the ladder," that he notices, "Oh goodness, now the rungs are broken out. But what a great view it is from up here, and wouldn't it be great for everyone else to see what I see?"
She then somehow digressed to her pink jacket and how she'd bought it from some fancy department store in North Carolina but then noticed the same jacket for much less at TJ Maxx. "Were you upset?" a woman in the crowd shouted.
"No, I returned it, and got the one at TJ Maxx," said Elizabeth. "In a lot of ways, we live like we're still climbing the ladder."
Afterward, a woman who had been trying to find the right words to express why she liked Elizabeth ran up to me: "That's it," she said. "I feel like I can whisper in her ear!" But the story was supposed to be about John, not Elizabeth.
When outsiders pry into the private lives of politicians, maneuvering past the 60-second spots and consultant-crafted images, politicians bristle. Remember what Bill Clinton said in his press conference on Monica Lewinsky: "Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most--my wife and our daughter--and our God."
But the Edwardses always invited the cameras in. Outside of the Clintons, no other campaign is as much of a family affair. Their 25-year-old daughter Cate campaigns, and their younger children live a Truman Show existence, traveling with their parents and sometimes talking to the press. Their staff says the couple embodies the aphorism that "the personal is the political." In the last campaign, aides were often called on to put in the car seats or stock the fridge or find a video. Once a staffer was dispatched to find water wings--in Iowa, in the winter--because, after his events, John liked to swim with Emma Claire and Jack in the hotel pool.
When Elizabeth discovered her cancer had returned, the couple held a press conference in a courtyard at the University of North Carolina--where they had held their wedding reception 30 years earlier. Her stage and treatment plan immediately became public knowledge. The couple's decision to stay in the race became the subject of raw debate about a husband's duty to his dying wife. Katie Couric asked her many intrusive questions about her illness, and how she felt about dying, and Elizabeth said later she didn't mind at all. At the spouse forum, all the other wives fretted about "your life getting sucked out from under you," as Michelle Obama put it. But Elizabeth had no patience with that line. "Whichever one of us wins, our life is going to be an open book, so you might as well start practicing and let people embrace you," she lectured them. "You have to open the window and pull back the curtains and let people see whatever it is."
Later, in an interview, she was even harsher: "Give it up!" she told me. "What they're saying is totally unrealistic! Part of being a grown-up is accepting that, if your husband is president, your life will never be private again; your whole life is going to be on the Internet." As a political wife, "you do stand a reasonably good chance of protecting your children against the press," she said. Her conception of protecting the children is some combination of Elizabethstyle bluntness and a Jackie Kennedy-like sense of decorum and public duty.
Earlier this year, she allowed a reporter for The New York Times to interview Jack and Emma Claire, who are now seven and nine. She says she asked the children and they wanted to do it, but, by the time it came around, they were no longer in the mood. "I don't want to do this," Jack was quoted in the story as saying, and then John threatened to take him in the back and "have a conversation." For many parents, this public embarrassment might have brought out protective feelings and irritation at the nosy press. But not for Elizabeth. Jack was behaving like a "complete and total pill," she told me, and John was right to threaten to take him in the back. Later, Elizabeth made Jack read the story and watch the accompanying video. "See, this is what happens when you behave like this," she told her son. "It shows up in a paper like The New York Times."
"That's not fair. Everyone has a bad day," Jack answered, according to his mom, and then asked if he could call up the reporter on the phone. (She didn't let him.)
Staff from the 2004 campaign describe it as something like an oversized family, with Elizabeth playing both the role of the Godfather and the kooky mom, who had to be persuaded to stop keeping her money in her bra and loved to throw staff parties. But her bluntness was also scary. Elizabeth could love you or she could "rip you to shreds," recalls one staffer. "A lot of people were afraid of her." Sometimes, she would cancel events at the last minute and demand of the staff to explain to her why a given appearance was more important than seeing her children. Once, she was stranded in Cincinnati when all the outgoing flights got canceled. She insisted a staff person drive her back to North Carolina to say good night to the kids, although she had to be in D.C. the next morning. Another time, the staff could find no direct flight for her in and out of Texas for under $2,000. Although they were strapped for cash, they bought her the ticket, "because no one wanted to tell her," one staffer said.
Elizabeth admits she was hard to deal with. "This is my fault," she says. "I talk to everyone as if they're my equals. I don't talk up to them, and I don't talk down. But this doesn't work because, where I see them as equals, they see me as a principal, and they can't adjust." She admits she got mad when staff made minor mistakes, but she defends the practice: "If the percentage of college tuition increase on page thirty-six is different from the number on page sixty-three, I'm going to call them up and say, 'This isn't good enough. Why are you giving this to me at all?'"
Many people--most people-- living in Elizabeth's wide-open emotional terrain would feel exposed and uncomfortable. This seems to be the case for John, who is by all accounts more private, unknowable, un-spontaneous. In the last campaign, when Elizabeth was known for keeping her money in her bra, he was known for delivering the "Two Americas" speech so perfectly that reporters who followed him had learned it by heart, down to the relevant facial gestures.
The 2007 version of Edwards is less controlled, more passionate, more connected to his inner rage, a "fighter," as he says about 23 times a speech. Some people say this is him, angry about the last campaign or about George Bush, or that it's Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's old guru who now works for John. But people who know the couple well say at least part of the transformation is him channeling Elizabeth, who has always been more blunt, more open about her passions, who has always said "exactly what she wants," according to Anania.
On her, these qualities seem natural. On him, the transformation registers as harsh. Last time, The Des Moines Register endorsed Edwards. This year, "we too seldom saw the 'positive, optimistic' campaign we found appealing in 2004," the paper wrote last week.
When Elizabeth is accused of reshaping the campaign, she balks. "I have virtually no role," she told me. "I know people find that hard to believe." She insisted that her life was defined by fixing up their vast new house in Chapel Hill and by her ongoing cancer treatments, and that, unlike in the last campaign, she hadn't been on a conference call or to a debate prep in weeks.
Her cancer can be contained for some time with treatments, but long-term prospects are grim: In the standard risk analysis, only a quarter of stage IV cancer patients live five years or more, although, as Edwards readily points out, those numbers reflect patients following outdated protocols. Edwards says she was not destroyed by the diagnosis because "Wade's death insulates me a little bit. Part of grieving is recognizing the loss of control over your life. Something else gets to decide what your life is like and how long you'll live, and that's a pretty powerful realization. Well, I've already accepted that I have no control."
Hanna Rosin is the author of God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America and a contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly.