John and Elizabeth Edwards: Making a Tough Call Sunday night, John and Elizabeth Edwards told the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes that they didn't want anyone's sympathy vote as a result of the return of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer. Should John Edwards still be in the race for president? How will his campaign be affected by what everyone knows about his wife's health?
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John and Elizabeth Edwards: Making a Tough Call

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John and Elizabeth Edwards: Making a Tough Call

John and Elizabeth Edwards: Making a Tough Call

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Last week, we all learned the awful news that Elizabeth Edward's cancer has returned. She and her husband held a news conference last Thursday to discuss her illness - treatable, we were told, but incurable - and to announce that John Edwards will continue his campaign for the presidency.

The former senator from North Carolina was John Kerry's running mate in 2004 and is usually listed among the top three candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Many who watched the news conference and later interviews say that the Edwards handled themselves with poise, humor and grace, that if this was a test of how he and they might handle a crisis as president, they did very well indeed.

Others wondered about whether voters might see the candidate as putting his ambitions ahead of his family - the Edwards have two small children - or worry that his wife's illness might distract him from the rigors of the campaign or, in the event, the even greater demands of the presidency.

Later on the program, the future of the nation's largest civil rights organization is on the Opinion Page this week. Is it time to change tactics in a post-civil rights era?

But first, did John and Elizabeth Edwards make the right decision? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. E-mail You can also comment on our blog. It's at

Joining us on the phone from Santa Monica is Susan Estrich. She ran the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. Today she's a syndicated columnist and teaches law and political science at the University of Southern California School of Law. Nice to have you back on the program, Susan.

Professor SUSAN ESTRICH (Law and Political Science, University of Southern California): Great to be here with you, although this topic is a very sad one.

CONAN: It is indeed. But as you noted in your column last week, you said the easiest thing for John Edwards to do would have been to go home, take care of his wife and bide his time to run for president.

Prof. ESTRICH: You know, that's exactly right. When I first heard the news, I think my reaction, like loads of people's reactions, was why doesn't he just go home and take care of his wife and be with his family. And to be perfectly blunt about it, he's only 53 years old. If he wants to be president, he's got plenty of opportunities to do it in the future.

And then I thought, but how awful for poor Elizabeth, as it were. I mean, it's her dream too. It's their dream, and this is her shot to go for it. And it became clear to me, I think, what my friends were telling me who know the Edwards well, which was he was ready to suspend this campaign and it was she who, more than anyone else, convinced him that she wasn't ready to start dying. She wanted to go on living.

CONAN: If perhaps, and again you don't want to get too maudlin about it, but if she has five, seven years left, she might want to spend four of them in the White House.

Prof. ESTRICH: Well, that she wanted to spend them doing what she wanted to do and living her life to the fullest. You know, this is a tough one. I find myself getting in conversations with people who get very heated on the subject of why they're making the decision they are. But I remember when one of my close girlfriends, a wonderful woman, radio broadcaster named Judy Jarvis, was facing lung cancer and every day she got up and she did a radio program. And I thought to myself - it was such a clear lesson to me about living in the face of death, and I think that's the lesson the Edwards are, potentially at least, trying to teach the country.

CONAN: You also wrote in your column that we've been accustomed to political marriages and campaigns where the candidate never spends time with his family, but you say that doesn't seem to be the case in the Edwards' case.

Prof. ESTRICH: No, this is a real marriage. I mean, that's one of the interesting things because the first - you know, the most logical explanation for why you continue a campaign in these circumstances is that the guy is ambitious, and it's a political marriage, and what do you expect.

But in fact, the Edwards, they lived through the loss of a son. I've seen them together. They're a real marriage. I mean, they're probably the best marriage we've seen in years, and I think that's very much part of the reason why they can do this together.

CONAN: And as they do this together, as somebody who's run a campaign, this presents opportunities and it presents problems too.

Prof. ESTRICH: Oh, it's only problems. I mean, this is really hard. You know, a campaign is incredibly difficult and full of wear and tear on the best day. And it's emotionally exhausting and draining, and this is only going to make it more difficult. But as anybody who's faced cancer will tell you: What's the alternative, you know?

If you could do it with cancer or without cancer, you'd do it without cancer. But if you're facing the diagnosis she is and your choice is do I keep doing what I dreamt of or do I go home and have everybody wait for me to die. And if that - you know, I respect her choice.

CONAN: And it's not just that she is letting him continue the campaign or that she wants him to continue the campaign. She's speaking today at the City Club of Cleveland. She's part of the campaign.

Prof. ESTRICH: Right. From what I understand, what she was going to do today was take her children to school, get on an airplane, fly to Cleveland, give a speech, fly home, then pick the kids up from school. Now, that makes me a little tired and - knock on wood - I'm healthy today.

So it's a strain, but I think for Elizabeth Edwards, and I know for a lot of people who face cancer, it's better to push yourself to live your life than to, you know - she'll give in on the days - not give in, but she'll stay home the days she has to stay home. But so long as she doesn't, why not?

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail Of course, we're addressing the decision by the Edwards family to continue his campaign for the presidency, and our guest is Susan Estrich, who ran Michael Dukakis' campaign back in 1988.

Our first caller is Kathleen(ph), who's on the line with us from Cincinnati, Ohio.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Kathleen.

Prof. ESTRICH: Hi, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN: I'm calling because I'm in precisely the same situation as Elizabeth Edwards, different form of cancer, but I have a brain tumor, a primary brain tumor. And if you know anything about that, they're never cured. They're treatable, but it's not curable.

So right now I'm on my fourth recurrence of the tumor. But I - you know, I quit my job and started my own business, and I do exercise walks every day. And I was in tears last night as I was watching her on "60 Minutes," and she said, you know, either that or the cancer wins, and I don't want it to win. And I so agree with her, and she is so right in what she's doing. And I think, you know, some day her children will look back at here - even if she doesn't win her fight with cancer, her children will look back at her as a hero and not a victim.

CONAN: And Kathleen, you probably know better than anybody that you look at these prognoses and they can be very daunting, yet that doesn't make them fate either.

KATHLEEN: Exactly, exactly, and I think that - two things. I have, you know, a whole team of doctors I deal with now, and in the very beginning, five years ago when this whole thing started, I asked all of them: What can I do to have the best outcome on this? And every single one of them said have a positive outlook on the outcome of the treatment, and so I've taken that as a prescription.

Prof. ESTRICH: What do you think of all the people criticizing them?

KATHLEEN: I don't think they understand. I really don't. I think that it's easy for people to see someone like Elizabeth Edwards as a victim of cancer, and it - I have a number of friends who are dealing with different phases of different stages of different types of cancer, and every one of them hates the idea of being called a victim. Every one of them hates to be seen as incapable of doing things.

I have a number of clients I've never told I have this brain tumor because people look at you differently. People treat you differently. And I think what Elizabeth Edwards is doing today even - I was listening to talk about her day today - that would wipe me out too. But I think what she's doing is she's showing, look, this is how people with cancer live. It's not, you know - people are expecting, you know, you to just give up. But I think what she is doing is probably going to prolong her life.

CONAN: Kathleen, thanks for the call and good luck to you.

KATHLEEN: Thank you.

Prof. ESTRICH: Good luck, Kathleen.

CONAN: Let's turn now to George. And George is calling us from Charleston in South Carolina.

GEORGE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi George, you're on the air.

GEORGE: Hi Neal. I appreciate your taking my call. I just really wanted to say that, although I can sympathize, obviously, with any victim of cancer or any other dreaded disease, I think that all of comments being made are totally irrelevant. They're all related to the individual his or herself as to how it makes them feel, what kind of courage they have, how they should carry on the rest of their life. The point here is that we're talking about the presidency. The president has to have his first choice the care of the country, not just himself or his wife or her husband. His job is to take care of this country and national security, health, environment, education, et cetera.

He cannot devote his time both to his wife, who may be ill and may at any time have a recurrence, that he should have to share his concerns that's taking away from the benefits and the well being of the rest of the country. And basically that's all I have to say.

CONAN: Okay. Well Susan Estrich, George does make the point, if John Edwards had been elected president and he were in that situation, well, you can't suspend your presidency. It's not a choice. At that point you really do face some difficult decisions.

Prof. ESTRICH: Well I think he was asked that question and I think it's a fair question: Can you do both? Can you focus on the country when you need to and take care of your wife when she needs it? And I think he answered straightforwardly that he thought, having lived through the experience of losing his son and having had to face grief and remain functional, that he thought he was capable of doing both. It's obviously a question the country or voters have a right to ask. I think my own sense is that he will grow as well as a result of this experience.

And if anything, putting things in perspective makes people larger and better in their judgments and values. But it's a fair question.

CONAN: And for good or ill, the campaign his so long that I guess we're going to have the opportunity to see how he handles it because there are ups and downs in the treatment of this sort of disease and we'll see how it goes.

Prof. ESTRICH: Right, and we'll watch them do it. I mean, one of the things that I felt was interesting which Kathleen brought up was this whole question about how other people feel around cancer patients. And our last caller, I think, revealed some of that, saying he sympathized with the victims. But one thing I found with my girlfriend, and I know lots of people have found, is that you'll have these friends who don't want to be around you anymore because they were afraid it's almost contagious. And one question for a politician in Edwards's situation is: Are people going to be comfortable with him and with them?

CONAN: George, thanks for the call. We'll be back with Susan Estrich. We'll also be speaking with Andy Taylor, who's been following the Edwards' for many years. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After the news conference last week and the "60 Minutes" interview last night, John and Elizabeth Edwards hit the campaign trail today. Mrs. Edwards is in Cleveland, Ohio, where she's speaking about the diagnosis of treatable but incurable cancer that she received last week. Today we're discussing their decision to continue the campaign. Is it the right one? Our guest is Susan Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign in 1988 and wrote about the Edwards' decision in her syndicated column last Friday.

And if you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog, which is And let's bring in Andy Taylor now. He's chair and associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University. He's been following and writing about John Edwards' political career since he first ran for U.S. Senate in 1998. Andy Taylor joins us from his office in Raleigh, North Carolina. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor ANDY TAYLOR (Political Science, North Carolina State University): Thank you Neal.

CONAN: And knowing what you know about John and Elizabeth Edwards, did this decision surprise you?

Prof. TAYLOR: Well, I don't know, really. That's a cop-out answer, but it wouldn't have surprised me either way. Edwards clearly is someone who is very interested in being president of the United States. He left the Senate in his freshman term to do so with very little experience in politics. And he has been plotting the 2008 campaign since the day that he and John Kerry lost to George Bush and Dick Cheney in 2004. So he's got a lot invested in this.

On the other hand, of course, he is a human being and a husband and a father and someone who I think genuinely - and of course, I'm not an expert on human relationships, but I think anybody can see - and Susan mentioned this before - that he's genuinely very much in love with his wife and this is a very solid kind of marriage in a world where marriages aren't quite as solid as they used to be. So he was torn both ways. And when I was waiting for to hear the decision when we saw the press conference Friday, I really didn't know which way it was going to break.

CONAN: Somebody presumably went through with them a checklist. These are the pros; these are the cons. These are the sorts of, you know, practical decisions - practical things that we have to think about, including, as Susan Estrich said earlier, the calculation that, wait a minute, perhaps we ought to wait four years.

Prof. TAYLOR: Yeah. Although apparently this was a decision that the senator and the immediate family and his wife made themselves outside of the advice given by close political confidants. But yeah, I'm sure he was taking this sort of checklist of pros and cons. And people near the campaign knew that this was a possibility. This hasn't of course come out of the blue. Mrs. Edwards - this is a recurrence of Mrs. Edwards' cancer so it was always on the cards. And there are a whole host of pros and cons that will affect the campaign.

We can make the argument, of course, that it shouldn't. This is the candidate's wife. This is a personal matter. Substantive issues should affect what happens during this election. But it will be. There's no doubt about it. It will be a distraction. The media will constantly be talking about it. We'll have updates on Mrs. Edwards' condition. And it will inevitably be part of the campaign, and I think they looked at it both ways, at least Senator Edwards did and Mrs. Edwards did. And I think the bottom line is it's a wash and what you do is what you want to do.

It's their life, it's their campaign, and you do what you feel is right in your gut. And it seems as though it's been a collective decision and they've gone on with the campaign.

CONAN: Interesting, Susan Estrich. He said their life, their campaign. In the "60 Minutes" interview last night - and I'm sure John Edwards said it without thinking - but, you know, don't vote for us if it's out of sympathy. Us.

Prof. ESTRICH: They're very much a team. I mean, John and Elizabeth have been together for 30 years and, you know, they've been through a lot. And, you know, at one point I remember when she was promoting her book she made some comment about Hillary and how she had made a different end in some respects, on the surface, less ambitious choice in deciding to stay home and not practice law. But this is a very talented - and I say this in a positive way - ambitious woman. And the two of them are very much a team.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Carol. Carol with us from Bel Air, Maryland.

CAROL (Caller): Yes, hi.


CAROL: I think all of the nitpicking and anguish and stuff around this is missing an important point. And I think this is the point that maybe the others are trying to make. Cancer is not an automatic death sentence. It's become a chronic, manageable disease in many instances. And so they've chosen to go on with they want to do, and I think we all need to learn a lesson from that. And that's all I need to say about it.

CONAN: Well I think, with respect Carol, she painted a fairly sunny portrait of the disease. We've seen oncologists quoted in newspapers since then subsequently who say - again, this is not - as I said earlier, this is not fate and it's not certain, a prognosis is never certain - but nevertheless, this is not good news.

CAROL: I understand that. I'm a six-year survivor of ovarian cancer. When she said at her press conference that every time you go for a checkup, you know, your heart drops because you don't know what's going to happen, that's very true. But by the same token, so much has happened in the way of research and treatment that you can't just put cancer in a single box anymore and say it's an automatic death sentence. You know, we don't know what the situation is with her. And so I just think they've made a decision - I hope they've made a decision that was right for them, and I think we need to think about what cancer means for a lot of people in this world.

And one of the points that Senator Edwards made was they are fortunate that they have really good health care coverage. Think of all the people in this world who don't.

CONAN: Indeed. I guess, Susan Estrich, that raises a - you know, do you go on the campaign trail - and health care was one of his issues before we heard this news and before he heard this news, and does this make it an awkward issue?

Prof. ESTRICH: No, I think you just have to deal with it, as the caller would say, in a straightforward way. But I think that it does raise this question of - there's going to be a debate. I mean, we had the earlier caller - I think it was George - who said that he doesn't think the husband of a cancer patient and cancer survivor is capable of running the country and focusing. And my guess is there's going to be a lot of people with cancer in this country, and their husbands and wives, who are going to take issue with that and we're going to actually have some debates about this. That's probably inevitable for John Edwards, even if he doesn't change his position on anything.

Prof. TAYLOR: The interesting thing about the Edwards' as well on this point is the kind of life-changing event like this has been a spur for him to become more engaged in public life in the past, and that was the death of his son Wade in 1996. And Senator Edwards said at the time it was sort of a transformative moment for him in many ways and let him sort of seek more of a public role to seek to help people a bit more and get involved in politics, and hence run for the senate in 1998.

And to a certain extent we may be seeing that again that, you know, it does seem as though this development should make him less likely to want to pursue public office. But in some ways you can say, one, you want to defeat the disease and you don't want to give up, as Susan mentioned in the earlier segment; but also it sort of makes you want to serve the greater good perhaps a little bit more and spur you in the direction. And certainly there's precedent for it from John Edwards.

CONAN: Andy Taylor, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Prof. TAYLOR: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Let's see if we can talk now with Robert Dallek. Robert Dallek is a presidential historian. His biographies include those of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. His latest book is "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power." Robert Dallek, nice to have you on the program, as always.

Professor ROBERT DALLEK (History, Boston University): Nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And let me begin with an e-mail from Karen in Rindge, New Hampshire, which seems to go right up your alley. Let us not forget President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He remained an effective and well-loved president, able to focus despite his illness. JFK buried a child during his presidency, as did Abraham Lincoln. No one questioned their ability to govern. I would much prefer a president that is human, genuine and participatory husband and father than a focused robotic and ambitious talking head. But she's certainly right on precedent, isn't she?

Prof. DALLEK: Yeah, I mean, I think that her point is well taken and, gosh, someone who is humanized by struggling with these very human dilemmas or problems does strike, I think, certain resonant chords with millions and millions of people in this country. And I think in a way it raises the attractiveness of a candidate. Now, I would doubt that, you know, they sat down and necessarily calculated this, but they seem to be quite spontaneous in the way in which they spoke to the public and the press about this dilemma they are facing. But I think it endears them more greatly to the public.

CONAN: Which raises questions about how to handle the announcement of this news once you have to figure out that you're going to announce it. And, Susan Estrich, I wanted to get your input on this as well, but Robert Dallek, they had this announcement, as I understand it, in a very photogenic place, indeed, the same place in Chapel Hill where they had their wedding reception.

Prof. DALLECK: Yeah. Well, Neal, I think the most important thing is candor, because, you know, there's been so much secret government and so much manipulation of image. And I don't doubt for a minute that there was some of this involved, but if you come across as deceptive, trying to hide a candidate's wife's serious illness, I think it would be terribly destructive to them and to their campaign.

And also, I think there is an understanding that in this day and age, you cannot get away with such a thing anymore. You know, Franklin Roosevelt, there are no photographs of him on crutches or demonstrating his disability. The press cooperated in those days, as they cooperated with Kennedy in not revealing his womanizing. But you can't do this anymore, and I think it was very intelligent of them to and wise of them to be straightforward and candid about it.

CONAN: Susan Estrich?

Prof. ESTRICH: Oh, you have to be these days. In fact, it's almost become an art form, you know, how we release bad health information or history. I remember back - oh, my God, it's almost 20 years ago with Kitty Dukakis putting out the story, and we literally called it putting out the story of her past drug use. And it was just a calculated effort of where to put her at the right setting, maybe a drug treatment program.

I think you saw a beautiful setting for John and Elizabeth Edwards, because it was all about life. It wasn't about death. They didn't stand outside the hospital, which would've, you know, given you a totally different message. They were at the place where they had their wedding reception. I mean, it was supposed to be positive and optimistic. And we did that visually as well.

CONAN: We're speaking with Susan Estrich, who managed the Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988, now a syndicated columnist and professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California School of Law, and also a political analyst for Fox News.

Prof. ESTRICH: That's right.

CONAN: Also with us is Robert Dallek, presidential historian. His latest book is "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Robert Dallek, here's another e-mail for you - this from Orion(ph) in Carson City, Nevada.

Has there been - have there been any presidents in the past who have had their job performance decline after a first lady fell ill during their tenure?

Prof. DALLECK: Well, you know, I don't think so. I don't know of any. We certainly know much more about presidential health, the fact that Grover Cleveland had cancer of the jaw and he had a surgery to take care of that, and it didn't seem to affect his presidential performance.

We know that Woodrow Wilson was stricken by a terrible stroke, and that certainly affected his performance because if we had a 25th Amendment for the Constitution in those days, I think his - he would have been suspended, and justifiably so.

We know now that Franklin Roosevelt, of course, was really a very sick man running in 1944. Churchill's physicians saw him at Yalta and said the president has hardening of the arteries of the brain, and he'll be dead in three months time. And Lord Moran was absolutely right. But was there a presidential spouse who really - there's the one instance I can think of is Calvin Coolidge had a son who - a teenage son - who played tennis on the White House tennis court that got a blister, it was infected, and then he died of blood poisoning, tragically - a teenage boy that sent Coolidge into a clinical depression. And so, that family disaster had an impact on a sitting president.

And I don't know about Gerald Ford. Do we know whether Mrs. Ford's difficulties had an impact on his running of the office? Maybe we'll find out in the next 10 or 20 years when we get more and more into the presidential materials at the Ford library. But for the moment, I couldn't answer that question.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one last call in. This is Nancy, Nancy with us from Montclair, New Jersey.

NANCY (Caller): Yup.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Nancy.

NANCY: Hi. I was just wanting to comment. After listening to the Edwards and then kind of projecting the idea that it's, you know, one or the other - you could cower in the corner or you continue with your life. I think, you know, John Edwards and his wife concern the nation in many different ways.

And to say, you know, accelerating their life - which is what you'd be doing -by, you know, running for president, I think that they could have an in-between choice that allowed them to not cower in the corner but also be there for their family and deal with whatever this disease is going to throw their way.

CONAN: And what would that choice be?

NANCY: Excuse me?

CONAN: And what would that be?

NANCY: Well, I mean, there's - as I said, there are so many ways to serve their country, so maybe…

CONAN: Oh, I see. But maybe not as - maybe not…

NANCY: …you know, choose a candidate that they support most or who they think could transform this nation - you know, similar ideals to what he has and work for them or campaign for them but a little bit on the lesser level.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Susan Estrich was that part of the calculation, do you suspect?

Prof. ESTRICH: Well, I think that's a choice that would make sense for a lot of people, but it wasn't the right choice for them. And so I guess the bottom line is, do you respect their choice or do you - you know, each of us can put ourselves in the position and say we might have done something different. But the question is, will we as a country go along with that choice and respect it?

CONAN: I guess we'll find out. Nancy, thanks very much for the call.

NANCY: Okay. Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: And Susan Estrich, thank you for the time today.

Prof. ESTRICH: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Susan Estrich, professor of law and political science at University of Southern California and also an author herself, "The Case for Hilary Clinton" is her book. And she spoke with us on the line from Santa Monica in California. Robert Dallek, always nice to speak with you.

Prof. DALLECK: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Robert Dallek is a presidential historian. "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power" is his most recent book, and he was with us today from his home here in Washington, D.C. When we return from a short break, the future of the NAACP and what some call the post-civil rights era. Is it time for the nation's largest rights organization to change its tactics? 800-989-8255 -that's 800-989-TALK. You can e-mail us, We'll be right back with the Opinion Page.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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