The CBS legal drama “The Good Wife” might easily have modeled itself on Elizabeth Edwards. In 2010, being the good wife could sometimes count against your approval ratings. Yet Edwards weathered life’s tempests and trials with a resilience forged in the intense heat of public scrutiny, and likely her legacy will rise above the scandal, even as her last years were defined by it.
For better or worse, her reputation had been tied to the political fortunes — and personal failings — of her husband. The pair’s entwined history went back more than three decades: “Saint Elizabeth” met “Ego Monster” John Edwards when both were law students at the University of North Carolina. True to form for a woman coming of age in the ’70s, she kept her own name, Anania, in the professional world, and never put her own career to the side. She kept pace at the Office of the North Carolina Attorney General and at various law firms, until the devastating death of son Wade in a 1996 car accident, shortly after he was honored at the White House as a finalist in an essay contest.
Elizabeth Edwards devoted herself to the Wade Edwards Foundation and to campaigning with her husband and Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry in 2004. But she was diagnosed with breast cancer on the very day Kerry conceded. “I have sometimes talked about the strange gift that comes with the awful tragedy of losing a child,” she wrote of her diagnosis in her 2006 memoir, “Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength From Friends and Strangers.” “The worst day of my life had already come. And I knew too that I had a chance to beat this.”
Beating cancer was the goal, but her strength was further tested when she learned in 2006, shortly after John announced his run for the presidency, of her husband’s affair with videographer Rielle Hunter. Though assured that it was a single night, a momentary error in judgment, Elizabeth Edwards’s response was perfectly understandable: She cried, screamed, ran to the bathroom, and puked. “Like most wives — or husbands — in my position, I wanted to believe his involvement with this woman had been as little as possible,” she noted in her 2009 memoir, “Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities.” “It turned out that a single time was not all it was. More than a year later, I learned that he had allowed [the woman] into our lives and had not, even when he knew better, made her leave us alone. … Those with any fame or notoriety or power attract people for good reasons and bad.” In this case, notoriety won, as Hunter gave birth to John Edward’s baby.
So, was Elizabeth Edwards a woman rising above a humiliating situation, or was she somehow complicit in what happened? Books that came out early in 2010 leaned toward the latter opinion. “Game Change,” by two political journalists and close-up observers of the 2008 presidential election, at one point characterized her as an “abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.” (She said on “Larry King Live” that the authors never contacted her.) Scant weeks later, Edwards aide Andrew Young admitted in his memoir, “The Politician,” to his part in the twisted masquerade of pretending he was Hunter’s lover. The misguided scheme, he asserted, was intended to spare a dying woman’s feelings. Several months later, though, Young accused Elizabeth of “not facing the facts and not taking responsibility of her role in constructing the myth of John Edwards.” The good wife was cursed if she did, cursed if she didn’t.
After telling Larry King, “I want people to see me as a moral person who tries to make the right decision when the time comes,” Edwards faded back out of the spotlight. The repercussions haven’t: Her husband faced a federal investigation into whether his campaign improperly gave money to Hunter. Meanwhile, the other woman and Young have been battling over a reported sex tape in court.
The Edwardses filed divorce papers in January, but North Carolina law dictates a mandatory one-year separation. Elizabeth Edwards told People in June that the final break would happen only if one of them wants to remarry. But before that could come to pass, the cancer spread to her liver and claimed her life on December 7. Friends said that John Edwards had remained “very much a presence.”
In her last days, Elizabeth Edwards reached out to her friends. “It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel towards everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day,” she wrote on Facebook. “To you I simply say: you know.”