Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Thanks, Elizabeth Edwards, For Finding Your Voice

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Elizabeth Edwards (1949-2010)

Elizabeth Edwards, estranged wife of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, was buried Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina after a six-year battle with cancer. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Just a few words on the passing of Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former senator, former vice presidential nominee and presidential candidate John Edwards: She died last week at the age of 61 and funeral services were held Saturday. She is survived by Mr. Edwards, from whom she was estranged, and three children.

After all the ugliness  that came after the 2008 campaign — and unbeknown to most, during the campaign when John Edwards was already carrying on the affair that would destroy his marriage — it's easy to forget what came before.

John Edwards was one of the very few candidates to make fighting poverty a central and explicit concern. And although many people then questioned — and still question — the sincerity of that interest, not to mention the viability of his proposals, there's no question that he was really one of the few that put poverty front and center in his presidential campaign.

Many credit Elizabeth Edwards with pushing her husband to take and stick with those bold positions. And there is also no question that her own willingness to air her private struggles struck a chord deeper and stronger than any political campaign, even though she was very much a political figure.

Can I just tell you? After all this time, this country still doesn't know quite what to do with political wives, which is maybe one reason we can't bring ourselves to elect a woman president. What on earth would we do with a political husband?

Political wives are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Damned if they are model tall and thin and coiffed, damned if they are not. As Elizabeth Edwards readily admitted, she was not.

They are damned if they put their own careers on hold or walk away from them entirely to support their husbands', and damned if they won't — or at least make it clear they don't want to.

They are damned if they are smart and tough, as she so obviously was, and they are damned if they feel a need to downplay just how smart and tough they are.

Which is to say, it's still not easy for a political wife to find her own voice.

And despite her two best sellers, and less than flattering portrayals of her elsewhere, I still find myself wondering exactly how she did find that voice. How did she live out such a hard time — and it was a hard time — in such a public way and make something inspiring out if it?

If you think about it, hers was not an easy road at all.

She was trained as a lawyer but, for a long time, essentially made her husband's career her own. And as many know, that’s not always easy to do. She was part of the squeeze generation, caring for both children and an elderly parent at the same time. She along with her husband had become quite wealthy over the years but in her public life, focused on the issues that matter most to the people who have the least.

And she was a person who had suffered terrible losses — not just of her first son, but the loss of her own health and privacy.

I did not know Elizabeth Edwards well but I did want to talk about a discussion forum that I moderated, in which she was one of the participants. And I want to tell you that this was after it became public knowledge that her husband had an extramarital affair and after it had become known that her cancer was not "curable."

The event had been organized long before the adultery allegations had been known, so when they did become known, I was not certain she would show up. I would certainly have understood if she had decided not to. I just did not know how I was going to fill the time if she didn't.

The organizers assured me she was coming, and — lo and behold — she did.

I took her aside before the event and I said, "listen, there's no getting around this. People are going to want to know how you're doing, so why don't you just start there?"

And she just said: "OK."

When it came time for the questions, I just said, "How are you?" And she gave a brief, but detailed, and very candid answer. The whole place literally went wild. So I got to see one example of what she meant to other people.

And even now, as someone very close to me is struggling with breast cancer, I can honestly say I do not feel as panic stricken as I know I would have if I had not been exposed to her take-it-as-it-comes approach.

But the part I never got was: how did she manage to do it? How did she manage to lay bare so many things that hurt so much and still make people feel it was going to be okay?

One more thing I wanted to mention: There was a small dinner before the event, when everybody who was going to talk was being introduced and said a few words. When it was her turn, she used her time to thank the kitchen and serving staff. She said something like, "I know how hard this job is, so thank you."

No, Elizabeth Edwards, thank you.

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Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues