comscore Elizabeth Edwards was more than just a political consort

Elizabeth Edwards was more than just a political consort

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Hawaii has a new governor, the president has infuriated Democratic leaders in Congress and his liberal voter base with a compromise tax package, and the WikiLeaks guy has been arrested on allegations of sexual assault while his organization continues to flood the world media with thousands of secret U.S. government documents.

In Mexico, the United States and China appear on the verge of taking a tiny step toward dealing with climate change, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Afghanistan, taking even smaller steps in hopes of ending American troop involvement in that intractable conflict.

Then there’s the news about Elizabeth Edwards, who died of cancer Tuesday at the age of 61.

Edwards was a so-called political wife, a woman primarily defined by her husband’s seeking and serving in elective office.

The roles these many women play range from background extras, like Pat Nixon’s mute and gentle cameos at Richard Nixon’s side through his tumultuous career. Or they move to a sideshow, confined by societal expectations to take up benign, though worthwhile, initiatives such as highway beautification and literacy.

Hillary Clinton, who was keenly instrumental in her husband’s winning the presidency, declined to stand in the shadows. But her bid to be a leading player in Bill Clinton’s first years in the White House drew savage criticism, forcing her to the back of the stage in his second term.

She has not remained there. Since the end of her husband’s presidency, Clinton has come into her own, not because of him but in spite of him. The reason? She is an intelligent, adept, hard-working woman ill-suited to be a mere prop to in her husband’s cavalcade.

Like Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards had a sharp mind, resilience and was "fearless," in the words of John Edwards, the one-time presidential candidate who was also her estranged husband.

Widely popular, she was portrayed through his campaigns as "Saint Elizabeth," as she spiritedly stayed on the stump while struggling with cancer. So when a post-campaign book described her differently, as a woman who would chew out staff members and spew expletives at volunteers, many of her admirers were astonished.

They should not have been.

Assessments of political wives are generally superficial and cursory. The notion that she and he think the same and hold all the same beliefs is why Cindy McCain’s support of repealing the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law — contrary to her spouse’s inflexible opposition — triggered breathless, oh-my-gosh reports in the media.

Like Clinton, Edwards had to deal with humiliation brought by her husband’s infidelity. They chose different courses, Clinton staying with her man, Edwards eventually separating from hers.

There is no judgment here. Spousal connections are as complex as the individuals who form them, and there is no way to explain or unravel ties bound away from public eyes.

Political consorts are considered fair game because of their participation in the process. But like the private Pat Nixon, they aren’t specimens who reveal their nature under public microscopes. They aren’t malleable, one-dimensional beings. Elizabeth Edwards wasn’t. For that, she should be held in high regard.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at

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