My heart sank the way it would at the news of the passing of a friend. Just the night before, I’d fallen asleep to images of Elizabeth — Anderson Cooper was reporting that she was near death.
A burst of emotions overcame me because for all the stuff you hear about a politician’s wife, all the drama she had been through in the last few years, I remembered a reporter covering her first presidential campaign who was taken with the down-to-earth nature of Mrs. Edwards.
On a frigid winter day, I was among the crowd at the Manchester Public Library at a Edwards campaign stop. John Edwards introduced his wife on stage. Elizabeth, standing just behind her husband in a black pantsuit, stepped forward on the stage and waved to an enthusiastic audience.
“That’s his wife?” asked a woman in the crowd. “She looks so real.” She was not the trophy wife everyone had expected of the candidate known for his good looks and charm.
“I was 25 years old when I first met John Edwards, ” she said when he announced his candidacy a few months before. “He was earnest and energetic and unashamedly sweet. He was principled and wildly intelligent, and he was a tremendously warm person. Twenty-nine years later, John Edwards is exactly the same person. To my great chagrin, he also looks exactly the same.”
But many of her supporters saw her as the smarter of the two. They viewed her as the backbone of the campaign.
“Sometimes I see him getting bombarded with information, so I will tell him to be himself and not to forget to smile,” she told me in an interview I did for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ll be the ballast for. . .the people whose job it is to download information to him.”
She told me about the time she met John, how it was not love at first sight, how he eventually swept her off her feet. “He was nice enough,” she said. “Pleasant. But it never occurred to me that he might be the person I would spend a quarter century-plus with.”
But when he leaned over and kissed her gently on the forehead to say goodbye, she was smitten.
It never occurred to us that he would have an affair, father a child with another woman while he was running for president in the next go around. Not after everything she had given on the campaign trail. She had even thought about how she would behave if she got into the White House.
“You get a megaphone as first lady, ” she said. “You have to use it responsibly, but you also have an obligation to use it or the betterment of the country.”
Elizabeth Edwards never got that chance. But I am thinking of her words now as I await results of the Haitian presidential election. And I’m glad I came home from the 2004 Democratic convention with a sign that simply said: Elizabeth.