People let loose on John, Elizabeth Edwards' decision to stay in race

March 27, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Columnist

What John and Elizabeth Edwards are enduring right now is both painfully common and completely extraordinary.

Like too many couples, they have received a grim diagnosis and must now decide how to live the remainder of what will certainly be an abbreviated life together.

However, they are also running for the presidency - I say "they" because this is a team effort in the mold of the Clintons' 1992 campaign - and their private tragedy is now a very public matter.

What is not so common - and is certainly not commendable - is the intrusive and sometimes cruel public comment on her fate and on their decisions around it.

It is enough to make you long for the days when hardly anybody knew FDR used a wheelchair or that JFK lived in debilitating pain.

From the bold criticism that their news conference Thursday was a tactical move to make him look more human and approachable to the cold-blooded assessment that the return of her cancer will certainly give his campaign's visibility a much-needed boost, I am left to wonder what people won't say out loud about the misfortunes of others.

By whatever standard we judge the coarsening of political discourse in this country, this is certainly a new low.

The woman barely had time to tell her children before commentators were generating "scenarios" and ascribing poll numbers to them.

John Edwards found it necessary to tell the American public on 60 Minutes on Sunday night that he didn't want anybody voting for him because his wife was gravely ill. Ugh.

I understand that the most private aspects of a presidential candidate's private life are open for inspection - from Barack Obama's parking tickets to Mitt Romney's wife's battle with multiple sclerosis.

John McCain has had a couple of wives and a couple of bouts of skin cancer. Reporters are asking Rudy Giuliani's son if he has forgiven his father for the lousy way he treated his mother during their separation and divorce.

I understand, though it still makes me cringe.

But watching the love and courage of John and Elizabeth Edwards last week and then reading these cynical and mean-spirited reactions made me want to avert my eyes: Who had the more craven ambition for the White House? Him for abandoning his cancer-stricken wife to campaign? Or her for abandoning her young children to campaign?

Certainly there were expressions of prayer and support on blogs and in chat rooms. But in the anonymity of cyberspace, there was also this:

"What universe does John Edwards live in?" asked one poster on The Caucus, a New York Times political blog. "One where a life-threatening health crisis is pushed aside for personal advancement? For power? Of course his wife would say `push on.' And wait for him to say, `No, you are important to me, we will go through this together, then push on.' His single-mindedness is numbing. And frightening."

And in the not-so-anonymous news pages, Democratic pollster Peter Hart offered this candid advice: Edwards would have to strike a "delicate balance ... between a loving husband and an ambitious politician."

In the Times, a political analyst, commenting on the fact that the Edwardses held last week's news conference at the hotel where their wedding reception had been held 30 years ago, said: "It most certainly made sense for the campaign to address this, but it was also pretty good theatrics."

It is remarkable to me that John and Elizabeth Edwards should have to defend how they choose to spend what remains of their life together, whether it is sailing around the world with little Emma Claire and Jack or campaigning for a political office.

Said Elizabeth on 60 Minutes: "Either you push forward with the things that you were doing yesterday or you start dying. That seems to be your only two choices."

It is true that crisis can bring out the best in people - or the worst. It is true for John and Elizabeth Edwards. And it is true for everybody watching.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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