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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Political Spouse

Elizabeth Edwards: 1949 – 2010 There is no more difficult – nor ill-defined – role in American public life than the role of political spouse. There are simply no rules and the highest and most unreasonable expectations.

Every woman – and let’s face it the vast majority of political spouses are women – has to make it up every day. Like a circus high wire act, there is no net and, politics being politics, there are always opponents, score settlers and even campaign handlers who are quietly cheering for a fall from the wire.

Some spouses like an Eleanor Roosevelt of history or a Hillary Clinton of the Senate and State Department find a unique way to play the role. Others like a Cindy McCain or a Joan Kennedy never seem comfortable in the awkward public space that surrounds them.

There is an old joke among political operatives that on the campaign trial you can always find a way to manage the (male) candidate’s personality, it will be the spouse that presents the real challenge. I can only imagine that the old line was whispered regularly on every John Edwards campaign.

Elizabeth Edwards, who died yesterday after a excruciatingly public battle with cancer, an unfaithful husband and the tragic loss of a young son, seems to have had vastly more than her share of the ill-defined role of public spouse. As the Washington Post said, she lived her private pain on a very public stage.

Edwards was by all accounts – and not all were praising her – whip smart, extremely tough, resilient, opinionated, demanding, ambitious, unable to suffer fools easily or well. All that would be viewed as a compliment where it a description of a male candidate rather than a political spouse.

Still the vast majority of the recollections of this remarkable woman’s life leave one thinking that our politics would be better had she been the senator, the vice presidential and presidential candidate. Instead, it was the now-disgraced John Edwards who flashed upon the American political scene and seemed just as quickly to flame out in the wake of personal scandal. Elizabeth Edwards went along for the ride, but not as a bit player, and in the process became a bigger and vastly more admirable player than her clueless husband.

The best-selling campaign book Game Change will feature in many Elizabeth Edwards obits because of its lacerating view of her as the opinionated witch on the campaign bus. When I read that account in the aftermath of the 2008 election, it struck me, as Jonathan Alter has now written, that the frequently vicious culture of American politics was kicking her when she was down. Some were being critical of Edwards for seeming to enable her husband’s behavior before turning it to benefit her own personality and celebrity.

What was missing in much of the portrait of Elizabeth Edwards was the element of human understanding and the unique dynamics of each and every personal relationship – especially a marriage relationship. Many political spouses don’t, initially at least, get much say in whether they go along for the political ride. Once on the campaign bus they find a way to play the role they are assigned and most end up taking pride and affirmation from the candidate-husband’s ambition and success. When controversy or adversity arises, the spouse, as in the case of Elizabeth Edwards, is left to cope as best they can. Being human, some do it better than others.

As Alter and others have written, Americans – particularly the class of political elites in both parties and the press – like nothing better than to build up our celebrities before we bring them low. We forget, too easily, that they are just people who suffer loss, endure pain and rage against illness. They just do it in real time in front of a camera and on the pages of anonymously sourced political books. And, of course, the truth in public life is never as clear cut or unambiguous as the air brushed image. The messy, tragic complexity of Elizabeth Edwards’ story should make the truth of that statement all too obvious.

In the whole scheme of playing the incredible hand she was dealt, you have to say that Elizabeth Edwards didn’t play it perfectly, just better than most of us would have and certainly better than the man she – and many of us – thought could be president.

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