A few (OK, maybe not so few) words about the Edwards debacle

by sawamix

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.