NPR logo Should We Blame Elizabeth Edwards For Husband John's Sins?

Should We Blame Elizabeth Edwards For Husband John's Sins?

This is one of those posts where I'm having trouble coming to a conclusion. I need your help.

There seems to be a backlash building against Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), who has written a tell-all book (and hit the TV talk-show circuit to expand on it) about her reaction to the news that her husband was having an affair during his 2008 presidential bid.

Since her cancer returned in 2007, Elizabeth Edwards has become one of the nation's most admired and sympathetic people. Given the dire prognosis of her illness, her decision to go along with her husband's second White House bid was hotly debated at the time.

That was especially true with Political Junkie readers. Some, like Liz Shore of North Potomac, Md., were sympathetic:

While my bout with cancer was nowhere near as severe as what she is going through, it is clear to me that everyone has different ways of dealing with illness and their desire to recover. Perhaps continuing with the campaign is their way of fighting the disease and not letting the disease take over their life. It is so important to have other things to hang on to and look forward to.

Sandy Biggs of Salt Lake City, who had recently lost her twin sister to inoperable cancer, had a different take:

I respect the [Edwards] family's decision to go on with the campaign, but I must ask if the family, with oncology expert advice and educating themselves on the horrible path cancer takes when it is inoperable, untreatable and eminent in its painful, indignant death, that the children might feel differently about their father running and may even hold some resentment at best.

I like John Edwards for the nomination, but I cannot, in my pain and good conscience, condone or respect his choice to go on with his candidacy. Elizabeth can coherently speak publicly in his behalf now, but this will not always be the case. I believe it is a selfish testimonial of love and compassion.

A lot has changed since 2007. Edwards' campaign for the Democratic nomination never took off, having been squeezed out by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And the public's perception of John Edwards changed as well.

In August, after months of dismissing the rumors as "tabloid trash," he admitted to carrying on an affair, since ended, with Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer. Given Elizabeth's precarious state of health and the fact that he was seeking to lead the Democratic Party into the 2008 presidential election, his behavior was risky at best, selfish and delusional at worst. Since his (in the words of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd) "cringe inducing" interview on the subject on ABC's Nightline back in August, no one — understandably — seems to care much of what John Edwards has to say.

But now Elizabeth Edwards has come forward with a new book, Resilience, in which she writes that when he told her about the affair, in 2006, "I cried and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up." As for the 2008 campaign, she also wrote, "He should not have run."

But run he did, and Elizabeth was standing there right beside him.

And the question now is, was she an enabler? Is she as much at fault in her silence as he was in the affair itself?

That's what people are asking. But is it fair?

Politico's Ben Smith says that the collapse of the Edwards campaign

now raises a question that echoes in the stories of many talented, self-destructive politicians: When — and how — should their family and staff try to stop them?

That answer is clear to the aforementioned Ms. Dowd. In her Times column today, she cuts Elizabeth little slack. John Edwards may be gone from the scene, she writes,

But now Saint Elizabeth has dragged him back into the public square for a flogging on "Oprah" and in Time and at bookstores near you. The book is billed as helping people "facing life's adversities" and offering an "inspirational meditation on the gifts we can find among life's biggest challenges."

But it's just a gratuitous peek into their lives, and one that exposes her kids, by peddling more dregs about their personal family life in a book, and exposes the ex-girlfriend who's now trying to raise the baby girl, a dead ringer for John Edwards, in South Orange, N.J.

Elizabeth said when they married, the only gift she asked John for was to be faithful.

"It didn't occur to me that at a fancy hotel in New York, where he sat with a potential donor to his antipoverty work," Elizabeth writes in her book, "he would be targeted by a woman who would confirm that the man at the table was John Edwards and then would wait for him outside the hotel hours later when he returned from a dinner, wait with the come-on line 'You are so hot' and an idea that she should travel with him and make videos. And if you had asked me to wager that house we were building on whether my husband of then 28 years would have responded to a come-on line like that, I would have said no."

She may be smart, but she doesn't seem to know much about men.

Like Hillary with Monica, the feminist struck out at the girlfriend, implying that Rielle was a wacky stalker.

"We're basically old-fashioned people," Elizabeth told O magazine. "So this was a pretty big leap for him. Maybe it's being so different is what was attractive."

She's still helping her husband hedge on Rielle's baby, whom she refers to as "it," telling Oprah that she has "no idea" if the baby is John's, and adding: "It doesn't look like my children, but I don't have any idea."

Asked by Oprah in a taping for Thursday's show whether she's still in love with her husband, she replied, "You know, that's a complicated question."

The really complicated question is what she hopes to gain from this book.

Back in August, as the scandal broke, Bonnie Fuller wrote this in Huffington Post under the header, "Elizabeth Edwards Drank Her Husband's Kool-aid And Became His 'Ambition Enabler:'"

Elizabeth Edwards was a victim when her husband cheated. She did nothing to deserve that and as a wife she had every right and many reasons to forgive the jerk. But the decision to stand behind him and publicly broadcast his staunch family values image was her own doing. As courageous and admirable as she has been in dealing with her cancer, she is now the latest member of the Publicly Humiliated Wives Club, and she has no right to complain about the public's interest in knowing exactly what has happened. She helped get herself in this situation.

I wouldn't begin to explain Elizabeth Edwards' decision to watch her husband go through the campaign knowing of the affair, let alone defend it or criticize it. Was it her responsibility to tell him not to run? Should it have been? It seems a bit harsh and over the top to equate the decision by a woman suffering from terminal cancer to stand by her husband with the despicable behavior of said husband, but that's the debate that seems to be developing in the wake of Elizabeth Edwards' book tour.

I'm torn. What do you think?