Elizabeth Edwards might have been first lady.
Sure, it’s a stretch to imagine that John Edwards could ever have won the presidency, especially given what we know now.
But before Kerry-Edwards lost the 2004 election, and before Barack Obama propelled himself to the 2008 nomination by force of personality, brains and organization, Edwards was a Democratic darling and his wife was an inspiration to women all over America.
Maybe her appeal was that she wasn’t perfect but multidimensional and strong in ways that mattered.
She was a brainiac, well-read, well-traveled, the law student who supposedly smarted off the first day of law school, telling “the scariest professor on campus” that his writing on the board up front was incomprehensible, according to Melinda Henneberger’s telling of it on politicsdaily.com.
Elizabeth Edwards had lived in Japan when her decorated Navy pilot father was stationed there and she’d learned dance and social skills from a Hiroshima bombing survivor, the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., reported.
She’d married her law school sweetheart, been a soccer mom and cookie baker, and settled into a comfortable middle-class routine in North Carolina.
But even charmed lives eventually run into reality.
When the Edwardses’ 16-year-old son, Wade, died in a car wreck, she was so devastated she quit practicing law; pursued projects to honor him; had her third and fourth children, at age 48 then 50; and became an ambitious driver of her husband’s political career.
John Edwards had a GQ face, but Elizabeth Edwards wasn’t a trophy wife. She stood 5-foot-2, with bright eyes and an engaging public manner. But by the time he was winning a Senate seat in 1998 and then running for vice president in 2004, she also looked a tad frumpy — attractive but not unattainably stylish or expensively polished.
Yet news stories about her often described her as his biggest asset, for her energy, instincts, attention to detail and blunt candor in defending him. It wasn’t until later that dissections of John Edwards’ political rise and subsequent self-immolation portrayed his wife as ruthlessly controlling and difficult within the campaign organization, a radical contradiction to her appealing public face.
But that dichotomy seems to have gained little traction, despite the media’s penchant for hoisting intriguing figures high above all human norms then gasping and cackling when they inevitably fall back to earth.
Maybe it’s because Elizabeth Edwards’ approach to her breast cancer diagnosis provided a positive example.
Many people who didn’t know her saw courage in her openness about her treatment and the decision to continue with the 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination after the cancer returned.
And many women saw reality, not a facade, in her not-entirely-gracious handling of her marriage’s brutally public collapse. First, she tried to protect her family, then came the humiliation when he was forced to acknowledge fathering a child with a campaign videographer.
The day Edwards died at age 61, my friend Michael Yaki, a San Francisco lawyer who’d recruited her to testify at a 2008 campaign-season hearing on health-care reform, wrote a simple tribute on the sfgate.com blog City Brights: “Elizabeth Edwards was a nice, genuine person. And sometimes in life that’s enough.”
She was complicated, not a caricature, and that’s most likely why so many embraced her.
— Linda P. Campbell’s e-mail address is