Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Remembering a remarkable and courageous woman

Elizabeth Edwards: Madam, you are truly a remarkable lady and you will be remembered as the wife of John Edwards, the former U.S. Senator from North Carolina. You fought a strong life and always carried a smile, you will not be forgotten in my heart, my thoughts and prayers are for you and your family, you will be missed, may you rest in peace!

John Forbes Kerry with his wife and John Edwards with Elizabeth Edwards in the Presidential election of 2004

I do admire this picture of the 2 Edwards together during both presidential campaign 2004 and 2008!

The most disarming, beloved and beleaguered woman in the American political arena died of cancer Tuesday, at age 61, at the Chapel Hill estate that Mary Elizabeth Anania Edwards once told me she'd built in part to compensate for the succession of modest homes she'd lived in as a Navy brat.

"From years of living in military housing, I like a big room," the wife of then-presidential hopeful John Edwards said in an interview in front of her hotel lobby-sized Christmas tree three years ago. Because some of the bedrooms she'd had as a kid were so dinky you couldn't fit the bed in and still close the door, "my dream was to turn in circles if you wanted to." The 28,000-square-foot result was just one of the ambitions Elizabeth willed to life, brick by brick, along with a few heartfelt myths and the clear understanding that she did not want to be remembered as anybody's cuckold, or some modern-day female Job.

Before their 16-year-old son Wade's Jeep was blown off the road in a freak storm in 1996, John and Elizabeth "had the storybook life and the storybook marriage,'' his former law partner David Kirby told me as Edwards was preparing for his second presidential run. But like most pre-Disney fairy tales, it also included some dark and confusing turns in the woods. On the campaign trail, Edwards' favorite fallback phrase was "It's not complicated!'' -- but the years they lived in public certainly were. For most of us, her story really only began on the worst day of her life, when the state troopers came to the door to say Wade had been killed and she promised herself that if her husband ever had to hear bad news again, it wouldn't be from her. I've often wondered if any of what followed -- his political career, the birth of their two younger children, her breast cancer, which was advanced even when she discovered an egg-sized lump six years ago, and his affair with Rielle Hunter, who bore him a daughter -- would ever have happened if Wade had stopped for a Coke instead of being where he was, when he was.

But Elizabeth wouldn't want me to start there, so I'll begin where she often did, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, where she was the smartest girl in class -- to the point of showing up the scariest professor on campus on the very first day. (When she knew answers others didn't, he tried to shame them, but she answered that maybe if he'd write something comprehensible on the board, they'd catch on, too.) That's when Edwards fell for her, he has always said, but she was not so sure. He was four years younger, not much of a reader, from a tiny town; she'd already been to graduate school in English Lit, loved Henry James, and had lived all over the world. When he finally did win her over, after their first dance under a disco ball at the Holiday Inn, it was when he kissed her goodnight on the forehead.

They married the Saturday after taking the bar exam, and she did some lawyering, too, even while mothering their older children, Cate and Wade, to such extremes that she was forever taking on projects like growing an outfit made of grass for Wade's Halloween costume one year, or making Snickerdoodles for the entire neighborhood. After Wade's death, she never went back to her office, even to pick up her things, and turned her attention to "parenting Wade's memory,'' as she called it, by opening a learning lab in his honor.

Because parenting was the thing that truly made the couple happiest, she always said, they were determined to have more children, and were over the moon when she gave birth to Emma Claire when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50. (A favorite story on the campaign trail involved receiving her AARP card while she was pregnant.) When John left his law practice and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, Elizabeth was not only at his side every step of the way but was widely seen as his greatest asset -- proof of the depth some doubted -- with an Everywoman appeal (the "anti-Barbie," she called herself) and policy chops that exceeded her husband's. Behind the scenes, she could also be hard on staff, and was far more protective of her husband's image than he ever was -- for instance suggesting at one point in the '08 presidential campaign that he introduce "Dr. Strangelove" as his favorite movie even though he'd never seen the film, because she thought it struck just the right anti-war message.

Traveling with her in '04 in California as a reporter for Newsweek, along with just one young aide, during the primary season of her husband's first presidential run, I remember her hoisting her own bag into the overhead bin and apologizing for sitting in First Class; she needed the extra room because of poor circulation, she said. In the car between events, she told great stories of the mom-to-mom variety, yet chock-a-block with literary references. At the same time, she did not even try to hide her intensity about making sure she was doing absolutely everything she could for her husband.

At campaign stops, she frequently quoted a few verses from "The Cure at Troy" by Seamus Heaney:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

The poem had particular resonance because the couple's personal loss was so entwined with his political plans, in her mind in particular. Her considerable drive, many of us who covered them thought, was in large part about extending Wade's influence -- in a sense, keeping him alive -- through the public service that the couple always said Wade had urged his father to pursue.

Never in modern politics -- not Hillary in 1992, not Michelle Obama in 2008 -- has a spouse been more central to a presidential campaign than Elizabeth Edwards was in 2004. All big decisions were made in the living room of the D.C. home they were renting while their "dream home" in Georgetown was getting an upgrade. Whether it was interviewing top staffers or working out spending priorities for the primaries, Elizabeth was on the case. She was also an early adapter of the Internet in politics, and as a bit of an insomniac, would troll user-groups on the Web -- which wasn't usual back in 2002 -- looking for all discussions of John Edwards.
On caucus night in Iowa in '04, Edwards, with almost no organization, almost defeated John Kerry, losing by 38 percent to 32 percent, and for a minute it seemed like anything was possible. But of course, as it turned out, this and the vice presidential nomination night in Boston that summer were the high points of Elizabeth's political dreams for her husband.

At the very end of the Kerry-Edwards campaign -- 12 days before Election Day -- Elizabeth was in the shower when she discovered a lump so large she called the friend who was traveling with her into the bathroom to feel it, too; it couldn't be anything, right?
What she did not do, however, was tell her husband, who she worried might take it too hard, or else get distracted. In fact, he didn't hear about it until more than a week later. How on earth had she managed to talk to him many times a day without telling him, or even letting him see she was worried? Or had she maybe learned along the way that denial is not all bad? Yes, she said mildly, and repeated what I'd said back to me, but with a look I couldn't quite make out.

As long as she didn't tell John, she told me, even she didn't have to let what was happening sink in. And if he didn't know it, how real could it really be? "I kept myself from thinking about it, too. ... I thought I was going to be fine, even when I was in the doctor's office" and he was telling her otherwise.

"The same day our campaign ended at Faneuil Hall,'' Kerry said in a statement after her death became known, "we saw Elizabeth head off to Mass General to confront this terrible disease. America came to know her in a different and even more personal way, as she fought back with enormous grace and dignity."

In the acknowledgments of his '04 campaign book, "Four Trials," John Edwards wrote, "Finally, my thanks to my wife, Elizabeth. I have spent many years trying to live up to what she believed I could be, and I am the better for it. This book and this life would not have been possible without her.''

When I was traveling with him and a couple of aides on a between-presidential-campaigns anti-poverty tour in '06, he told a story about her correcting his grammar at a "fancy Manhattan dinner party,'' and added that he had me figured as maybe a little bit unyielding on that front, too, no? (At the time, I took this as an unalloyed compliment, and wrote that like only the ablest of politicians, he'd correctly guessed the best angle of entry for an appeal to my vanity, "because who wouldn't want to be compared to Elizabeth?")

Though a passionate advocate for universal health care, she was less involved in the campaign in '08. My colleague Walter Shapiro says that the rawest and most wrenching public moment he can remember in politics occurred in a high school gym in Davenport, Iowa, in early April 2007 just after she returned to the campaign trail after learning that her breast cancer had returned. Because of the outpouring of sympathy for Elizabeth after the news -- and the drama surrounding John Edwards continuing the race -- their joint appearance in Davenport attracted more than 500 people to a lunchtime rally.

As they both took questions afterward, Elizabeth was asked about the need for more public education about mammograms, and as she answered, the gym was stunned into complete silence: "It had a chance to migrate because I sat at home doing whatever I thought was important and didn't get mammograms. ... I do not have to be in this situation. I am responsible for putting myself, this man" -- here she gestured towards her husband -- "my family and, frankly, all of you at risk, too. Because I think you deserve to vote for this man."

What she was saying -- and everybody there understood the implicit message -- was: I am going to die before my children get to high school because I didn't get a mammogram. But I refuse to allow my own negligence to prevent you from voting for this good man for president.

Of course, Elizabeth Edwards was not married to the classic definition of a good man, and a grand jury in Raleigh, N.C., is continuing its investigation into Edwards and his financial transactions back to the '04 campaign. But in a June interview on NBC's "Today" show, Elizabeth said that though they'd separated, she certainly didn't regret her marriage, and still believed she'd married a wonderful guy who had changed over time. "Maybe we all do," she added. In July, the former couple and their children traveled together to Japan, where she'd lived as a child.

The last time I laid eyes on Elizabeth, three years ago this month, she threw her arms around me and said, by way of greeting, "I wish my makeup looked like that.'' (I wasn't wearing any.) Then she plopped down on the couch, drew her knees up to her chin the way she always did, and, though she knew at least some of the details of her husband's affair by then, tried to sell me, and perhaps even herself, on honesty being his finest trait, and the reason she knew he'd make a wonderful president. No one ever had a better partner.

For all of the now well-known turns in their relationship -- his infidelity, and her understandable anger -- no one who knew her could have been surprised to hear that John was with her and their children at the end, or doubt that she would want the telling of her story to end as happily as possible.

A statement her family put out this afternoon said: "Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence but she remains the heart of this family. We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life. On behalf of Elizabeth we want to express our gratitude to the thousands of kindred spirits who moved and inspired her along the way. Your support and prayers touched our entire family." They asked that any gifts be made to the learning lab they'd founded in Wade's name.

And on her Facebook page just now, a friend wrote that she knew Wade had been waiting for his mama with open arms.

Elizabeth Anania Edwards (born Mary Elizabeth Anania) (July 3, 1949 – December 7, 2010) was an attorney and a best-selling author. At the time of her death, she was separated from her husband John Edwards, the former U.S. Senator from North Carolina who was the 2004 United States Democratic vice-presidential nominee. On December 6, 2010, Edwards' family announced that she would stop cancer treatment after her doctors advised her that further treatment would be unproductive, the cancer having metastasized to her liver. She had been advised she had several weeks to live. Her family members, including her estranged husband John, were with her. She posted her last message on Facebook:

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. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human.
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. It isn't possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know."

Edwards died of metastatic breast cancer on Tuesday, December 7, 2010, at home in Chapel Hill, surrounded by friends and family. She was preceded in death by a son, Wade, and is survived by three children, Kate, Emma, and Jack!

Obama calls Elizabeth Edwards a tenacious advocate
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama says he and his wife Michelle were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Elizabeth Edwards.

Obama issued a statement Tuesday calling her a "tenacious advocate" for health care reform and fighting poverty. He said the entire country has benefited from the voice she gave to such causes.

Obama noted that he came to know and admire Elizabeth during the 2008 presidential campaign. Her estranged husband, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was defeated by Obama in the Democratic nomination process.

The president said he had spoken to John Edwards and their daughter Cate in the afternoon.

Elizabeth Edwards dies at 61
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Elizabeth Edwards, who closely advised her husband in two bids for the presidency and advocated for health care even as her own health and marriage publicly crumbled, died Tuesday after a six-year struggle with cancer. She was 61.

She died at her North Carolina home surrounded by her three children, siblings, friends and her estranged husband, John, the family said.

"Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence but, she remains the heart of this family," the family said in a statement. "We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life. On behalf of Elizabeth we want to express our gratitude to the thousands of kindred spirits who moved and inspired her along the way. Your support and prayers touched our entire family."

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, in the final days of her husband's vice presidential campaign. The Democratic John Kerry-John Edwards ticket lost to incumbent President George W. Bush.

John Edwards launched a second bid for the White House in 2007, and the Edwardses decided to continue even after doctors told Elizabeth that her cancer had spread. He lost the nomination to Barack Obama.

The couple separated in January after he admitted fathering a child with a campaign videographer.

Elizabeth Edwards had focused in recent years on advocating health care reform, often wondering aloud about the plight of those who faced the same of kind of physical struggles she did but without her personal wealth.

She had also shared with the public the most intimate struggles of her bouts with cancer, writing and speaking about the pain of losing her hair, the efforts to assure her children about their mother's future and the questions that lingered about how many days she had left to live.

President Barack Obama said he spoke to John Edwards and the Edwardses' daughter, Cate, on Tuesday afternoon to offer condolences.

"In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain," Obama said in a statement. "Many others would have turned inward; many others in the face of such adversity would have given up. But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration."

The president called her a tenacious advocate for fixing the health care system and fighting poverty. "Our country has benefited from the voice she gave to the cause of building a society that lifts up all those left behind," Obama said.

Elizabeth Edwards and her family had informed the public that she had weeks, if not days, left when they announced on Monday that doctors had told her that further treatment would do no good. Ever the public figure, Edwards thanked supporters on her Facebook page.

"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered," she wrote. "We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. 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."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of John Edwards' rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2008, said the country "has lost a passionate advocate for building a more humane and just society," while the Edwardses' family and friends "have lost so much more — a loving mother, constant guardian and wise counselor."

"Our thoughts are with the Edwards family at this time, and with all those people across the country who met Elizabeth over the years and found an instant friend — someone who shared their experiences and offered empathy, understanding and hope," Clinton said in a statement.

Vice President Joe Biden said Edwards "fought a brave battle against a terrible, ravaging disease that takes too many lives every day. She was an inspiration to all who knew her, and to those who felt they knew her."

Kerry called her "an incredibly loving, giving and devoted mother" who fought cancer with "enormous grace and dignity."

Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant who Elizabeth Edwards recruited to work for her husband in 2008, recalled her spirit as one of the reasons he joined politics for the 2008 season.

"She was out to live every single day," Trippi said. "She was going to live every single one of them with all the energy and grit that she could. That's a big lesson that her life could teach all of us."

Dr. Otis W. Brawley of the American Cancer Society said the "courage, grace and dignity" that Edwards showed in battling cancer was an inspiration to patients, their families and health care professionals.

The Edwardses met in law school. Cate Edwards has followed her parents into a career in law. A son, Wade, was killed in a traffic accident when he was 16. Elizabeth Edwards had two more children later, giving birth to Emma Claire when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50.

The family asked that donations be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation, which benefits the Wade Edwards Learning Lab.

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