(Cross-posted at The Stinging Nettle.)
Having lost two family members to cancer, I know exactly what Elizabeth Edwards' diagnosis means, in the long term. I also know that people with cancer do not want to become "people with cancer." They are people. They also have cancer. End of discussion.
Still, I could not breathe as John and Elizabeth Edwards approached the press in Chapel Hill. I knew that if the campaign was cancelled, the news was as bad as could be imagined. I knew neither of them would quit if there was any hope at all.
So, I teared up when John announced that the cancer had metastasized. And when they stated that they would go on fighting in this campaign, I cheered, not only because I want him to be President, but because of what it told me about HER attitude. She is going to fight. And the news must not have been ALL bad.
It is not my place, or anyone else's, to weigh in with criticism of what she's doing, what I would do, or how a person should react. I just won't do it. I will wish her the best, thank her for her example, and then go out and work like hell to get them both to the White House. To judge them for their actions is, well, unseemly.
I wish our press felt the same way. Not five seconds after John and Elizabeth left the garden at the Carolina Inn, it was time for the craven vultures to descend. Remarkably, the finest comment of the day came from White House Spokesman Tony Snow, who showed that the Davidson gentleman inside him may have been tied and waterboarded by months of lying for George Bush, but he has not yet been beaten entirely into submission:
"As somebody who has been through this, Elizabeth Edwards is setting a powerful example for a lot of people, and a good and positive one. She has been on top of diagnosis and follow-up. When you have cancer it's very important to keep checking. She's being aggressive. She's living an active life. And a positive attitude, prayers, and people you love are always a very good addition to any kind of medicine you have. So for Elizabeth Edwards, good going; our prayers are with you.''
Nice job, Mr. Snow, and I wish you the best in your surgery this week.
But not everyone had the same manners. Comment threads across the web are filled with right-wing acid, as people accuse John Edwards of crass political opportunismand the equivalent of spousal abuse. Accusing him of dragging his wife along to support his ego. Or, as Rush Limbaugh did, accusing them both of staging the event for maximum political gain. To bad a human conscience doesn't come in pill form -- Rush might have one then.
Some, like Time's Jay Carney, said they weren't going to judge Edwards, and then went right ahead and judged him:
As the parent of two young children, I know I couldn't make the same decision that the Edwards made. Then again, I don't know what it's like to feel that the country needs me, or my spouse, to be president . . . If it's legitimate, as a character issue, to debate the significance of the five wives John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have had between them, and whether voters will hold that against them, surely it's also legitimate to look at the decision by John and Elizabeth Edwards to keep campaigning despite the reemergence of her cancer, and to debate whether it is, or should be, an issue to voters.
Yes, Mr. Carney, deciding to continue to run for President, with your wife of 30 years by your side, after being confronted with the news the Edwardses got this week is EXACTLY like cheating on your second wife - for whom you left your first wife - with a married member of your staff. Exactly. Moron.
But commenters on websites are usually acid-tongued, and right-wing ones are especially prone to nastiness and half-thought. Jay Carney, though the Washington Bureau Chief of Time Magazine, has shown little evidence of thoughtful consideration in any of his prior writings, so I shouldn't expect it now. But I was surprised that Margaret Carlson distilled the "concerned" point of view into a column so obtuse, so willfully ignorant, so perfect an example of what passes for opinion journalism inside the Beltway, that it should be mounted and framed as an example of how not to write.
Carlson began her column innocently enough, stating that in politics, the personal becomes political, regardless of the nature of the event. True enough. She then praised Elizabeth as "one of the warmest and most genuine political spouses ever to come to Washington." Absolutely incontrovertible.
The flattery over with, Ms. Carlson then pulled out the shiv. But, typically for Beltway journalists, she didn't wield it herself. Oh no, these thoughts came from "an informal poll of people generally sympathetic to the Edwards candidacy." Who? Who knows. But take Carlson's word for it. Those three people at the GOP HQ in Washington are very sympathetic to Edwards:
The women still love her, not so much him. No matter the situation, the former trial lawyer comes across as the smooth talker trying to woo Juror No. 8. They wanted something purely human, in keeping with their own experiences of life, something no doubt weaker and politically dangerous.
They wanted Edwards to act more like Edward VIII, who renounced the throne of England for Wallis Simpson, to say, over his wife's pleading objection, that he's giving this up ``for the woman I love.''
The lawyer jokes over with, and having declared that Edwards did not live up to the example set by a Nazi-sympathizing malcontent, Carlson then turns to a further anachronism. She cites the example of Birch Bayh, who left the race for the Presidency in 1971 when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy. This comparison is made without evident thought, as if medical science has advanced not an iota in 36 years.
Then, having been thrice ignorant, she gets really nasty:
"John Edwards shows once again that most politicians are different from you and me. Stopping running is akin to death... In the midst of the embarrassment and hurt of the most public affair ever, former First Lady Hillary Clinton didn't tend to herself, her daughter and her marriage. Instead, she went off to run for the Senate from a state she had mainly visited as a tourist. We all cope in our own way. Success is the best medicine for some."
This is such disingenuous tripe, but she gets points for managing to throw in an attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton - complete with the touchstone of all Beltway pundits - a reference to the Lewinsky scandal. Oh well done, Ms. Carlson. Well played indeed.
But how utterly wrong and irrelevant. It is unhealthy cynicism to automatically assume that people running for public office do so only out of some egotistical drive for "success," and that they could never have an altruistic or public-minded motivation. It is dangerous to think that way. Perhaps, just perhaps, John and Elizabeth truly want to change the country, and Elizabeth wants that to be her legacy. It would be nice if these people gave some signal to show that they had actually considered that possibility.
Worse than the cynics are the concern trolls, the people who cluck their tongues and express disbelief that John would campaign. "If I were him I would go home and take care of my wife." People who say this are profoundly belittling Elizabeth. They evidently want John and Elizabeth to stare longingly into each other's eyes for the next three to ten years as they wait for her to die. They think he is heading out to the campaign trail as she hangs on to his pants leg, begging him not to leave her. As if he made this decision without her input.
This point of view reduces Elizabeth to a wilting orchid, which needs to be taken off the dining room table and put in some back room where it can die before the guests see it. They want her out of the public eye, and they want him out too, because he is a reminder of death, or of cancer, or something.
They fail to understand that this particular orchid is made of steel. The notion of wilting is completely foreign to Elizabeth. The Edwardses have walked through hell. Twice. And they emerged with a strength and dignity that Margaret Carlson and Jay Carney and those internet trolls could not imagine possessing.
I have an idea. These people should take Elizabeth at her word. She wants John to run. She believes her grandchildren will be in a better world if her husband gets a chance to be President. She intends to fight for him until he wins. She would rather be by his side in this fight than anywhere else in the world, so long as her children are with her as well. People often go off to try and fulfill their fondest dreams when they receive a terminal diagnosis. Perhaps this is her fondest dream.
Take her at her word. Stop pitying her. She wants to fight cancer, and she wants us to see her fight. More importantly, she wants to fight for universal health insurance. She wants to fight poverty. She wants to fight for children dying of starvation in Africa. She wants to fight this joke of an administration that has led us to war and the ruin of our national image. She has lots of fights she wants to be in, and she doesn't want to go to the back room of her nice new house and wait to die.
Elizabeth and John handled that press conference and this devastating news with class and dignity that most people in Washington have only seen in Cary Grant movies. It might just be time for that kind of dignity, that kind of steel, in the White House.