The coverage of Elizabeth Edwards' new book and her promotional tour leaves us with two competing portraits. Is she: a) the valiant victim finally having her say for others who don't have a voice, or b) the unlikely opportunist, exacting revenge against her wayward husband and dragging her family back into the muck?
Over two presidential campaigns and a public battle with cancer, John Edwards' wife mostly benefited from the media's predilection for a single narrative. Profiles of Elizabeth the Brave proliferated, and none questioned the stability of her marriage or would conflict with the title of her current memoir, Resilience.
But some in the commentariat have had enough. Maureen Dowd called Edwards out for dragging her husband back into the public square for a flogging over his affair with a onetime campaign videographer. Writer Rebecca Traister at Salon.com called the political wife's book tour one of the most sadomasochistic publicity jaunts in political history.
More than five years after first meeting her on the campaign trail, I can only say this latest self-revelation inspires both tremendous compassion and tremendous compassion fatigue.
No one doubts that she has traversed a very tough road -- the loss of her teenage son to a car accident, a prolonged bout with incurable cancer and the unfaithfulness of her husband, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
John Morrill of the Charlotte Observer, who has covered politics in the Tar Heel State for more than two decades, agreed with me that Elizabeth Edwards is a charming person who displayed a winning personality on the campaign circuit. He felt his paper had been tough but fair covering the Edwards family.
Like a lot of mainstream journalists, Morrill initially discounted the October 2007 report in the National Enquirer that said candidate Edwards had had an affair with a woman who had traveled with him making a series of short campaign videos.
While the onus correctly falls on John Edwards, who has shrunk from the political scene, Morrill called Elizabeth Edwards complicit in covering it up. It's hard to disagree.
She said she didn't know about the prolonged nature of the affair until last summer. But, you know, I think they both have credibility problems now.
When Elizabeth Edwards called me Thursday afternoon, I asked: Did she feel any remorse about playing along with profiles that depicted hers as a loving and rock-solid marriage?
She said she never pretended that they had a perfect relationship, pointing back to her first memoir, published after his 2004 presidential run, in which she acknowledged that each of them occasionally had disappointed the other.
She said she felt so strongly committed to her husband's signature issues -- fighting for universal health care and against poverty -- that gave me a very safe place to go, and I could talk with real conviction and not say something ... about which I would not feel comfortable.
She describes in her new book how, when her husband told her about the affair at the end of 2006, she asked him to drop out. But he persuaded her that a hasty exit, days after he had entered the presidential race, would provoke suspicion.
So, did she help support a run for president to cover up an affair?
No, she said, she believed what her husband told her: that he had strayed only one time. She felt that, if she had made peace with the indiscretion, it should not be of concern to others and did not need to be dragged into the campaign.
Even CNN's Larry King, often a softball pitcher, pressed Elizabeth Edwards about the possibility that her husband could have won the Democratic nomination and lost the presidency to John McCain, had his indiscretion been belatedly confirmed.
Her answer - that her husband had convinced himself he would not be discovered - was as unsatisfying Thursday as when candidate Edwards gave his loyal campaign workers the same explanation months ago.
We fought so hard against the story line that he was a big phony with a fancy haircut and a giant house, said one former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the couple. And even though this story proved he was a phony on one level, it's still true that he cared about the right things and really wanted to make a difference.
I'm really getting tired of those kinds of rationalizations. But not so tired that they don't ring true.
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