By Ruth Conniff on Dec 7, 2010
“The problem for me with the other candidates is I don’t know what it is that drives them. What is it they really believe in that makes them get up in the morning and want to do this?”
Elizabeth Edwards is one of those rare creatures in politics—a real human being. As she campaigns for her husband, John Edwards, she is winning audiences with her warm, straight-shooting style. She keeps a frenetic schedule, even after the bad news about her breast cancer returning. In May, she spoke to reporters in Madison, Wisconsin, before delivering a speech to a bipartisan group of women in politics. Looking sharp and relaxed in a black pantsuit, she paused to comment wryly to a photographer crouched in front of her, “That is the worst possible angle for a woman, you know. You may take those pictures, but you may not run them.”
She dispatched questions about her decision to continue campaigning. “I don’t think people who have actually been through these situations are surprised that we would want to live our lives to the fullest, and not give up the things that are important to us,” she said. She tied her own diagnosis to the issue of health care generally, which remains people’s number-one concern on the campaign trail, she said. “It would be hard to be selfish, eating bon bons with my feet on an ottoman, clicking the remote,” rather than trying to do something about the “pain that is out there.”
The campaign, she said, “is about the thousands of women who face the same diagnosis I face, but don’t have the same access to care. Giving up on campaigning, on trying to make a difference, would be like giving up on them.”
Aside from questions about her health, the topic she was pressed to address most was Hillary Clinton. Edwards talks a lot about breaking barriers as part of a generation of female attorneys who had to prove that women could do as well as the guys in previously all-male law firms. So now the delicate job of explaining why women should vote against her fellow barrier-breaking female attorney falls to her. As an advocate for women’s issues and women’s equal rights, how can she justify seeking votes for her husband, instead of the first likely female nominee for President? “In my opinion, the candidate who’s best for women in this race is my husband,” she said, citing his universal health care plan, his pledge to end poverty (a predominantly female problem, she reminded reporters), and his determination to fight for equal pay.
In her speech to the group Wisconsin Women in Government, Edwards made an interesting comment that could be interpreted as a sidelong swipe at Hillary. Speaking of Woodrow Wilson’s First Lady, Edith Wilson, who is sometimes called the United States’ first woman President because she filled in for her husband after he had a stroke, she noted, “She was against women voting.” It turned out, Edwards said, “what she wanted was not for women to have power, but for Edith Wilson to have power.”
In her book, Saving Graces, Edwards writes frankly about her grief after the death of her teenaged son, Wade; her decision, later in life, to have more children; her battle with breast cancer; and the communities of friends, well-wishers, and even an online support group of fellow sufferers who have sustained her. The book is heartbreaking in parts, and also unexpectedly funny—as when she talks about telling her young children, Jack and Emma Claire, about her cancer diagnosis:
“ ‘Mommy has a bump,’ I said. ‘And that bump is called cancer. Cancer is very bad, but I will get rid of the bump, and the cancer by taking really strong medicine.’
“They looked bored. Somber, but bored. Or maybe just bored.
“ ‘And that medicine is so strong that it will make my hair fall out.’
“I think it cheered them up. ‘Your hair’s gonna fall out? All of it? When? Can I see?’ ”
As the daughter of a Navy reconnaissance pilot, Elizabeth Edwards spent her early childhood in Japan. She writes about being raised by a zany, outgoing father and a mother who, like other military wives, kept the family together not knowing how long a particular mission might last, or even if her husband would return. Elizabeth met John Edwards at UNC law school in Chapel Hill. They were married the Saturday after they took the bar exam, and she went on to work for the North Carolina attorney general’s office, and as a bankruptcy lawyer in Raleigh. After her son’s death in a car accident, she and her husband established the Wade Edwards Foundation, built a free computer lab for high school students in Raleigh, and set up a scholarship program in his name.
I flew to Washington, D.C., in mid-June to interview Edwards, who was there for a campaign event. We spoke for an hour over breakfast at the Westin hotel restaurant on Embassy Row. As we were talking, her daughter Cate stopped by to say goodbye. She is working at NPR for the summer and was on her way to the Supreme Court with Nina Totenberg, “to hear today’s assaults on the rights of working people in this country,” Elizabeth said dryly, after exchanging “I love you’s” with her daughter.
Question: How is your health, and how is campaigning going?
Elizabeth Edwards: I don’t know what is coming down the line. I went to the doctor’s yesterday and she said, “How are you feeling?” and “Do you want me to put an end to your doing campaigning?” and I said no. But she’s watching for me, watching for signs of being tired, and emotional strain.
Q: Are you thinking you’ll continue?
Edwards: I’m still doing it. I never know what I’m doing a week from now. So, between now and next week, I’m campaigning. The week after that, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s on the schedule. Cate and Emma Claire and I are going to take a girls’ vacation sometime this summer, which will have nothing to do with campaigning, and I’ve charged Cate with figuring that out.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to keep on now?
Edwards: There’s no way to do this that doesn’t sound negative about the other candidates. And I don’t mean to because I think that they’re good people. But John has a set of things in which he believes, and those are the reasons he’s running. He really believes in those things: eliminating poverty, and really doing something about universal health care, and standing up to the President on the war, and going after the environment in a really aggressive way.
The problem for me with the other candidates is I don’t know what it is that drives them. What is it they really believe in that makes them get up in the morning and want to do this? I should think the President has to be somebody who has that kind of vision outside themselves.
Q: What’s the answer for your husband?
Edwards: It’s the continuing inequity. We still have a middle class that lives on a razor blade. So sometimes when you say poverty, you neglect a large portion of the population about whom he’s deeply concerned. It’s the two-income trap. It’s more likely in America that your parents will file for bankruptcy than divorce. We think of divorce as so prevalent, but we all know that happens because somebody moves out of the house. But when bankruptcy happens, they stay there, they close up, and you don’t feel what’s going on. But what that means is we have all these families under stress, constantly. And then we have the people who are trying to get out of dire distress. You hear that thirty-seven million people in this country live in poverty, and fifteen million people—fifteen million— live in deep poverty, which is $7,800 for a family of three.
Q: It’s unimaginable.
Edwards: It is unimaginable. What do you hear these other people saying? Not one word. It’s fine to go give a speech on inequity. But I don’t for a minute think it’s what drives these other candidates. I don’t. Maybe it’s not a failure of their heart but a failure of their communication. But I know what drives John. So I know how he would lead. He would lead on the same things he talked about before he was running. And if people didn’t talk about it before, and they do talk about it while they are running, I’m not convinced they are going to do the same things.
Q: I read that you urged your husband to vote against the Iraq War initially. Is that true?
Edwards: That’s in [Bob] Shrum’s book. There are some broad outlines that are true, but the conversations were not accurate. The only time I actually remember expressing an opinion, we were sitting at our breakfast table and we had five people at the table. John is sitting here, I’m sitting here, someone from our staff who had been on Clinton’s staff in the National Security Council was here, someone high up in Clinton’s staff was here. That was the conversation. These people were telling him that all these reports were right, this is the same stuff Clinton was hearing, it was getting closer, we were talking about something that likely could be really imminent, all that kind of stuff. And my part of the conversation was simply, “What is the provocation?” I was just saying, no provocation, over and over. Which I guess is an argument against preventive war.
Q: John Edwards has since apologized for that vote. Did it seem like there was just too much political pressure at that time?
Edwards: No. He made an honest decision. And he doesn’t make this excuse for himself. He troubled over this. This was one of a series of conversations that he had, on information that he could gather. Mostly the anti-war cry was from people who weren’t hearing what he was hearing. And the resolution wasn’t really to go to war. The resolution, if you remember, was forcing Bush to go to the U.N. first. Of course, we expected him to actually listen to the U.N., which didn’t happen. The resolution was actually a slowing technique, so he felt like maybe it wasn’t ideal but I think he made a very difficult and good faith decision at the time.
But he doesn’t use that. You don’t hear him saying, “If I knew then what I know now” kind of stuff. He’s saying, “I made a mistake. I should have done more. I should have been more suspicious. I should have asked more questions.” Whatever was necessary to get to the right place. And having failed to do that, he takes responsibility for it.
And honestly, the other candidates? Obama gives a speech that’s likely to be extraordinarily popular in his home district, and then comes to the Senate and votes for funding. John, the first time funding came up, he was already suspicious. What he said was we’ve got two issues, one is the information and the other is not trusting your President. And he gave plenty of speeches at the time saying, “I’m not voting for the $87 billion because he has no plan.” You’ve got to do that for the men and women who are there: You’ve got to have a plan. And he didn’t vote for the $87 billion, and never voted for any dedicated funding.
So you are going to get people behaving in a holier-than-thou way. But John stood up when he was in the Senate for exactly the thing he’s asking these people to stand up for now.
Now Hillary, I don’t know what Hillary’s objection is. She, even in the New Hampshire debate, said, “I made a mistake.” People are looking for a mea culpa from her. And when she buries a line like that—I give her credit for saying that—but when she buries that line. . . . We’re electing the leader of the free world, and just like the votes on this last funding bill, we’re looking for a leader. They are very important leaders in the Senate. And we got thirteen votes on this last bill? Could they have influenced a few more votes? Probably not enough, but they should have been out there trying. They should have been making speeches about why it was they were doing this, and standing up and trying to rally. And they didn’t. They weren’t leaders. The point isn’t, “I got here first or I got here last.” The point is, in this moment, are you a leader?
Q: Is there a split between “new Democrats” and progressives, or what Paul Wellstone used to call “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?”
Edwards: John gave a speech at the DNC meeting saying we don’t need to reinvent our party; we just need to remember who we are. And who we are is the party of working people, including people who want to work and can’t, people who have worked and are trying to retire. That’s who we are and have always been. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. It’s easy to get misled with the DLC mantra “love the worker, love the employer.” The employers can pretty much take care of themselves. So as a party our job is to give voice to those people who don’t have a powerful voice. Unless that translates into votes or contributions, it turns out a lot of Democrats just ignore those people. They use language about working class people, but they are not out there with them. They use language about the immorality of poverty, but they are not out there. They generally support unions, but they are not walking picket lines. And so the difference it seems to me is not between old and new Democrats but between actual Democrats and rhetorical Democrats.
Sometimes it seems we have these beliefs but it turns out it’s like a Hollywood set: It’s all façade and there’s no guts behind it. You listen to the language of what people say, particularly Obama, who seems to be using a lot of John’s 2004 language, which is maybe not surprising since one of his speechwriters was one of our speechwriters, his media guy was our media guy. These people know John’s mantra as well as anybody could know it. They’ve moved from “hope is on the way” to “the audacity of hope.” I’m constantly hearing things in a familiar tone.
Q: Your husband’s “hope is on the way” convention speech sticks in my mind: the mother sitting at the table, worrying about her son in Iraq. Did you have anything to do with that, coming from a military family yourself?
Edwards: The one thing that I remember having made a contribution to in that speech was the child who gets a letter of acceptance to college and puts it in a drawer because he knows his family can’t afford it. It’s the way John thinks, and it’s actually the way I think, too, which is, not thinking in high-flying rhetoric, but thinking in picture stories. I’m not generally very critical of the Kerry campaign, because there’s not one little thing that could have made all the difference—there’s not. But it’s really important to take these facts that affect people’s lives and put them in terms that can reach them.
Q: Are you seeing people who are under the strain of poverty as you campaign?
Edwards: I see them as I campaign. But often they are not the people you see in your crowd. They are the people waiting on tables. Whenever I do something, I always go around and speak to the people who are working at events. It’s another imperative about speaking out for these people. Because they have complicated lives.
And I see them where I live, in Chapel Hill. It is a place of haves and have-nots. Between where I pick my kids up and where I drop them off for school there are a lot of apartments, very cheap apartments, and on that section of road, most everybody walks to work. They are walking on the side of the highway. They’ll walk with their groceries; they’ll walk with their laundry. And they’ll walk to work.
Think about what your day would be like if you did that. How long your day would be. You wouldn’t be watching Meet the Press. You wouldn’t be going to a political rally. You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. You don’t have the luxury of that time. They really depend on us. And chances are they won’t also be voting. Chances are if they are going to have a voice, we are also going to be the ones who are speaking for them. I see them every day. Where I live, it’s impossible to forget about people who live in poverty.
Q: You answered a question in Wisconsin about your personal wealth—how can you and John Edwards be the voice of people in poverty when you have so much wealth? You talked about your husband not coming from money, and not wanting to pull the ladder up behind him.
Edwards: It’s really a case of that. There are a couple of rungs at the bottom, but then there’s this huge section. Affording college is one of them. In the part of eastern North Carolina where John did “college for everyone,” 15 to 25 percent of kids went on to college—mostly to community college. Now 70 percent go. Twenty-four out of the top twenty-five paying jobs require a college education. So if they don’t go, they don’t get the jobs. And that rung is gone.
Q: On universal health care, I know your husband has a comprehensive plan. But why not single payer?
Edwards: Well, it has a single-payer component—Medicare Plus. John thinks that he can get this bill passed immediately. This is one of those first 100 days bills. The insurance companies still have a market on this. We saw before if we move straight to single payer they will do everything in their power to block it. What happens with this, though, because there is a single-payer option people can take, and because they have so much less overhead, maybe they are providing better services for your money. We expect over time there will be a general move toward Medicare Plus. They can fight Congress, but it’s really hard to fight every consumer’s individual choice. And the competition from the private insurers might drive Medicare Plus to become more innovative, too.
Q: What are you hearing from people about your own struggle with cancer?
Edwards: I gave a speech in Cleveland, and a woman leaned over to me and said, “I’m really afraid, I have a lump in my breast. I can’t go to the doctor. I have no insurance.” And then she disappeared. I went to speak at a Lance Armstrong summit several months ago. Afterwards, a very pretty young woman who graduated in English education told me that she didn’t have enough to pay for health insurance and she didn’t qualify [for Medicaid], so basically she had to strip herself of all of her assets so she could get treatment for her breast cancer.
People are going through that, or they are living with a death sentence. My experience has taught me the importance of doing something.
Hillary is saying we need to develop a political will. She hasn’t been talking to people if she thinks we need to develop it. We do not. There is consensus on this issue. And Senator Obama—I’m glad he has a plan. I don’t know why it took six months, but I’m glad he has a plan now. It doesn’t cover fifteen million people. If you’re one of those fifteen million, it’s not universal for you. The fact that he says he’ll fix it later, that’s not the kind of bold response we need on a problem that is this important to America.
Q: What gives you the strength to carry on?
Edwards: Well, I guess there are a couple of things. One is that it gives you back more than you give to it, honestly. Traveling and stuff, that’s a pain. But when you actually go to things and talk to people you get a lot more back from it than you ever put in. So it energizes you. The other thing is it’s good medicine for me not to sit around and think about myself but instead to think about the world that our younger children are inheriting. To think about the woman in Cleveland and the other people I’ve met out campaigning, and my complete conviction that nobody else cares about them the way John does, so nobody else is going to commit to them the way that he is going to commit to them. It makes it easy.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Food Safety Victory for Small Farms."
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