This is hard to write. On Monday in Chapel Hill, Elizabeth Edwards absolutely stole the show from husband John, the presidential candidate. She's living with a stage-four cancer. She looks great. Sounds great, and strong. We all have our fingers crossed that she'll outlast this thing for many more years. But her fingers aren't crossed, or that's not what she's counting on anyway. Everything about her says urgency and determination to make her life—and with her help, John's life—count for everything it can. She's determined to make us see John as she sees him—as capable of greatness. Almost palpably, she's also determined that he see himself that way, too, and be great.
So what does that mean—be great? It means that John must tell the truth about the condition of America, and no trimming, because Elizabeth and he have got no time to waste on pap. It means America's come badly off its wheels, and Elizabeth is convinced that John is the best person to start fixing it as president, but he'll never get the chance if he ever tries to kid the voters about what needs to be done. It means an almost radical (by today's standards) new commitment to equality that extends into every facet of American life.
Not coincidentally, this is the only way John Edwards can be elected president, I think, in a campaign against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. John's got to go, on the issues, where those two won't go, and he's got to persuade Americans that things are so off-track they must go there with him and do what's right. In that sense, his wife's not just his best advocate. She's also, it seems, his best strategist.
Now I say this not with the benefit of having traveled with the Edwards' or visited with them, but rather because—not having been around either of them for a good while—I felt like I was seeing with fresh eyes Monday what's so obvious about the two of them. John, who could always talk, is digging down deeper for what's important. Elizabeth, always serious but now seriously ill, is what's driving him.
The two were guests on the syndicated Ed Schultz radio show, broadcast live from the stage of the student union auditorium at UNC-CH before a cheering audience of 400. John came on first. What are the voters telling him? Schultz asked. "They want change," John answered. "They want it in the worst way." And for the first half-hour, John described some changes he's for: out of Iraq; universal health care with complete mental-health parity and no "pre-existing conditions" to trip you up; a "living wage," not just a minimum; and stronger union-organizing rights.
He promised detailed plans like the one he's already put on the table for health care, and he challenged his rivals to do so as well and to tell the "hard truths" about the sacrifices they'll require from the voters. "Because," he declared, "if you don't have specific proposals about what needs to be done, you're not ready to be president."
He was good. He's still got some work to do on the subject of America's militarism, but it's early and he's already ahead of the rest on Iraq. So for those who remember him fondly from the '04 campaign and his '98 Senate race, John is still right good.
But for now, he's no match for Elizabeth. And he's smart enough not to try.
When Elizabeth joined the show for the second half-hour, Schultz asked her about the "two Americas," one of John's favorite themes. What's that about? Her answer: It's about school playgrounds and the way, when you drive by one, you know instantly whether you're in an affluent neighborhood or a not-so-good one.
"We speak about equality in this country as if that's the ideal, and I think it is the ideal, but we don't actually practice it in so many ways," she said. Not in the tax code, not in health care, but the place where everyone sees it, and people nod in agreement when she talks about it, is on school playgrounds. If one school's got spiffy new equipment outside and the other just rusty, old monkey bars, imagine how unequal they are on the inside.
She said this quickly, passionately, because there was so much else to say, too. John was a terrific trial lawyer, Elizabeth said, because he's got a good heart and juries knew it—and because he could explain complex cases to them without talking down or bending the truth. "He's completely truthful," she said. "And that's exactly the quality we're lacking in the White House right now."
People were nodding at that, I noticed.
When the show ended, John was off immediately to the airport to catch a flight. But Elizabeth stayed and talked with every well-wisher, kneeling on the stage to sign autographs and exchange graces.
One such was Marian Crawford, a 59-year-old Carrboro woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She thanked Edwards for "keeping on going," relating her own oncologist's advice to "keep on living, do everything you can."
"We don't have any other choice," Elizabeth answered. And below her signed name she added, "Courage, sister."