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Elizabeth Edwards tells us what we didn't know—and it hurts

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Resilience is the title of the book. The common metaphor used—and it's used by Elizabeth Edwards in a passage quoted on the dust jacket—is getting back on your feet after you've been knocked down. After a hard hit, though, it's best to take some time before you get up. But time is something Elizabeth doesn't have. As she told Oprah Winfrey, the incurable cancer with which she lives could end her life in 10 years or one, or less than one. Understandably, then, she's anxious to give her account of her husband's infidelity during his presidential campaign, their decision that he should remain in the race regardless, and their decision to stay in even when, three months later, they learned of her cancer's recurrence in terminal form. She's anxious to put it all behind her as she enters her "new reality" as a woman who loves her husband but cannot fully trust him.

It's a hurried, incomplete telling interspersed across what amounts to a long essay about grief and how hard it is disentangling from broken dreams.

For Edwards supporters, though, who presumably will be the book's chief audience, it serves mainly as a disquieting reminder of how much we didn't know, or knew but set aside, as we climbed aboard for a thrill ride that wasn't safe for anyone.

Elizabeth says that John confessed to her on Dec. 30, 2006, that he'd been with a campaign aide, Rielle Hunter, but only once. John's confession, as she relates it, came out of the blue. He wasn't forced into it by events or fear of discovery; his reason, she says, was remorse. It wasn't until after he ended his campaign in the spring of 2008 that she learned John's "indiscretion" was in fact a drawn-out affair, and that John may be the father of Hunter's child (something John has said isn't possible because of the timing).

So when, in March of 2007, the Edwardses learned that Elizabeth's cancer had spread throughout her body, and they announced the terrible news at that press conference in Chapel Hill, she wasn't thinking that they ought to take the opportunity to get him out of the race lest he do serious damage to the Democratic Party and the nation by winning.

Just the opposite, she says. Her instinct was to hang on tight. In the same way, she says, that she'd wanted her old life back after her teenage son, Wade, was killed in a freak car accident in 1996—and after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, and after John's confession—she desperately wanted to believe that something of her old life could endure even then.

"I could not simply retreat to my home with nothing but death in my future. It might be hard to understand, but I had done nothing wrong at all, and yet my life, so carefully constructed, so carefully attended to, was being eaten away," she writes. "What did I have to rescue it, to mend it back to how I wanted it to be? [...] I pressed on with what seemed important to me."

It does no good now to think that she should've seen John's confession for what it was, or even that she did see it but couldn't, or wouldn't, grasp the impact of it. So, what? She's living with an incurable disease and a reckless, philandering husband and she wasn't thinking with 100 percent clarity?

Elizabeth did press on, telling audiences how "unbelievably important" it was that John be elected, both for his progressive positions and because he was "completely truthful"—a quality, she emphasized, that was critical after the lies of the Bush administration. (In recent interviews, she has said that she worded her statements so they weren't false. For example, John was "completely truthful" about issues.)

She was not making good decisions then, and she didn't make one when she exposed herself, her home and her dutifully smiling children to Winfrey's traveling circus. (John, who could hardly leave, was there as well.)

"What did you know, and when did you know it?" Winfrey asked.

To which Elizabeth responded with resilience of the too-anxious kind that comes when you're still reeling. It was painful to watch.

Independent Weekly cover April 29, 1998 - PHOTO BY M.J. SHARP

If Resilience is opaque about the '08 campaign, however, it is revelatory when read against the rise and fall of the Edwardses' political fortunes that unfolded right before our eyes. What comes through is how these two very human folks invented for themselves—and were later captured by and lost to—a delusion that they were destined for greatness, and that the world needed them to fulfill their destiny.

It's a story that Elizabeth begins with, and at each turn of her fortunes returns to, Wade's death. From his journal when he was 15, she quotes a passage about his aspirations and fears of not being deserving that ends with this: "I really want to do something great with my life." A year later, Wade was dead, and Elizabeth, busy mom, volunteer, wife, was never the same.

Elizabeth acknowledges living through Wade before and long after his death, clinging fast to a disappearing sense of herself until John's affair finally smashed what was left of her idyll. Only then did she accept "[that] my past is not perhaps what I thought it was, and my future is certainly not what I dreamed."

She was by measures depressed, disoriented, self-doubting and determined to recover what was lost, which because of Wade's death was all: "The fall," she writes, "is much farther if you think you have fallen all the way from heaven."

And John? He's in her story as her rock, partner in everything and a good man who strayed for reasons she—and, she says, he—doesn't know.

But let's remember what we know.

John Edwards was a smart, personable and hard-working trial lawyer when he lived in Raleigh, good on his feet and excellent at taking the risks required to win big personal injury cases.

He was not, however, qualified to be a U.S. senator when he threw his hat into the '98 Democratic primary. Nor, having won the Senate seat, was he qualified to be president when he launched his first bid in 2002.

By not qualified, I don't mean he wasn't intelligent enough to do the job—at least the Senate job. But his understanding of government was sketchy at best, one indication of which was that he hadn't even voted consistently prior to '98. More important, he wasn't tested one bit as to his ability to cope with the realities of high public office and the adulation, pressures and disconnection from family, friends and anchors in your life it brings.

Would, for instance, his small-town head be turned by contact with the filthy rich—the hedge-fund crowd, say, who will pay you a "salary" just for being their guy?

Would it be turned by a major-league charmer like Hunter, with her cameras and New York City know-how?

John's head got so turned, he didn't have a clue how far in over his head he was. Nor, unfortunately, did we.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, seemed totally committed to the idea that John was more than a mere mortal, more than a skilled lawyer, more even than a very lucky man. Her commitment never wavered and finally took on the trappings of a mission.

In the course of a single decade, the Edwardses entered politics, had two more children when Elizabeth was 48 and 50, sold their Raleigh home and bounced from one giant house to another to one, finally, of outsized proportions in Chapel Hill. Gradually, they lost their bearings.

Our crazy and corrupting political system, if you can call it that, is partly to blame, of course. In what sane country would a person be taken seriously for the highest office who has never been a party leader or responsible for any government program? What sane citizenry would expect, or allow, someone who seeks the highest office to campaign for it nonstop for six years, pitching the same speech in Elks halls by day and the same woo to wealthy donors by night? Wouldn't it be obvious that at some point he's going to forget who the hell he ever was and what is real?

And in what sane country would we expect that man's wife, who's lost a son to a car crash and is facing the prospect of her own imminent death, to be the bedrock he'd need?

When, in 2007, the Edwardses announced that John was staying in the race, many of us said, yes, of course, keep up the good fight.

But the right question wasn't whether to stay in or drop out. It was whether, after too long on the campaign trail, and too many hard hits, John should've been running in the first place. He knew, because of Hunter, that the answer was no. Elizabeth, at some level, knew it too. But, she writes, "We pressed ahead."

Their bad. But ours, too, those of us who were cheering them on. We didn't know about Hunter, but we should've known that, without any grounding in big-time politics, even the most solid of homeboys and girls are in grave danger when they're out on the limb of a presidential campaign.

As we read Resilience, we should recall what we knew, and when we knew it, about the hedge-fund ties, the giant houses and the idea that fighting poverty—or was it health-care reform? Same thing?—was the abiding purpose of John's life.

The truth is, we let John and Elizabeth go out on that limb when they weren't nearly steady enough to be on it. And we left them out there way too long.

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