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The Globe and Mail

A political wife's legacy: his appalling follies, her bad luck

Consider this: You're an accomplished lawyer, a passionate children's advocate, a best-selling author and a mother who has weathered the loss of a child. But when you die, your husband's infidelity makes it into the first paragraph of your New York Times obituary.

Such is the fate of the political wife who literally lives - and dies - in the shadow of her husband's actions. Such is the fate of Elizabeth Edwards, who succumbed to cancer this week at the age of 61.

The lives of some political wives become farce, but very few devolve into deep tragedy like this. Hers is a story filled with stark reversals and sad revisions - of a more than three-decades-long marriage between two ambitious people who aimed for the pinnacle of American political life. Their dream was shattered not just by the voters, but by his appalling personal behaviour and her appalling bad luck.

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He was a presidential aspirant (twice) with an intriguing background: Democratic senator, wealthy trial lawyer, son of a southern mill worker. A little too blow-dried pretty boy for some tastes. She was his engaging wife - warm, articulate and striking but not picture perfect. She gave him much needed ballast.

They had dealt with loss - the death of their 16-year-old son in a car accident - and, along with their elder daughter, remade their family with two young children, who are now only 12 and 10 as their mother leaves them.

Elizabeth Edwards's very public life began to unravel in 2004, when, shortly after her husband's vice-presidential campaign ended, she disclosed she had breast cancer. She went into remission, but the cancer came back, diagnosed as incurable. When the Edwards announced they would continue a second campaign for the 2008 nomination despite her serious illness, it seemed like a false note. Why waste precious personal time on a political quest you can't win when you might have only a few years to live? But you see, they both seemed to say, she believed in him.

Alas, there was a deeper false note, another revision. Elizabeth knew her husband had begun an affair with a dippy New Ager named Rielle Hunter, and that it would bring down the Democrats if he were the candidate. But she pressed on by his side.

It wasn't until, after many craven denials, he finally admitted he had fathered a daughter with Ms. Hunter that Elizabeth legally separated from him. In the meantime she had taken her story to the American public, with the de rigeur oversharing on Oprah, but also, surprisingly, with a beautifully written memoir, Resilience. It hauntingly asked a central question: What do we do when our life story doesn't turn out the way we expected or hoped?

She wrote: "All I wanted was my life back. I didn't like this new life story." In the book, she vowed that she wanted her children to say to their children that she had "stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her way - and it surely has not - she adjusted her sails."

John Edwards has become political burnt toast - long may he be charred. A perennial bad joke, a man so vain he cheated on his cancer-stricken wife partly because some groupie told him he was "so hot." But Elizabeth got scorched too. Game Change, a gossipy bestseller described her as an "abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman" and asserted there was no one on the national scene "for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing." Well I can think of a few - how about JFK?

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She also got slammed for initially protecting her husband. Maureen Dowd chided in The New York Times that she had "put so many quarters in the shiny slot machine of their mutual ambition. It was hard to walk away." Honey, anyone who is married feeds that slot machine. Yet only political wives get dinged for it.

Elizabeth Edwards would probably never have had any public podium if she hadn't been married to John Edwards, but what she did with it was estimable. She connected with the bereft, the bereaved and the betrayed. She authored two books that offered graceful hope to shattered lives. She may end up having more lasting impact than her husband.

As she lay dying, he was apparently there at her bedside. Someone out there will probably find a way to blame her for that, too. Such is the fate of the political wife.

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