The Salon Interview: Elizabeth Edwards

On her confrontation with Ann Coulter, why she backs gay marriage -- and why Edwards is a better choice for women than Hillary Clinton.

By Joan Walsh

Published July 17, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

Elizabeth Edwards is not wasting time. She cut through the fog of sympathy and second-guessing about her decision to continue campaigning for her husband, John Edwards, despite learning in March she had incurable breast cancer, simply by hitting the campaign trail hard. By most accounts she has always been the campaign's leading strategist and still is. But lately she has emerged as its leading risk taker, too. At the end of June she won the nation's attention -- and the gratitude of many -- for confronting right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter live on MSNBC's "Hardball," after Coulter called John Edwards a "faggot" at a conservative conference in March, and joked in June about wishing he'd be assassinated. Since then she has been in San Francisco twice campaigning for gay rights, keynoting before the annual gay pride march in June and addressing the Human Rights Campaign's awards dinner on July 14. And where her husband, like the other leading Democrats in the presidential race, supports civil unions but balks at gay marriage, Elizabeth Edwards has come out behind full marriage rights.

Another famous spouse has been in the headlines in recent days, of course. But while former President Bill Clinton was busy telling Iowa and New Hampshire audiences that his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, has the experience to be president, Elizabeth Edwards' pitch seems to be that her husband has the guts to make the radical changes a president should be ready to make in 2009, after eight years of the Bush debacle. On Saturday night, at the end of a long day of campaigning, she curled up in light-blue pajamas made of environmentally friendly bamboo for an hourlong interview in her hotel room. She hit Hillary Clinton particularly hard, arguing that John Edwards is, in fact, the better candidate for women: "She's just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see. John is."

Edwards was getting ready to join her husband on his three-day "poverty tour" that kicked off Monday in New Orleans -- he called from Iowa during our interview to say good night -- and she talked candidly about why she confronted Ann Coulter, the frustrations of the couple's being attacked for their wealth while fighting poverty, whether her husband is colluding with Hillary Clinton to limit future debates to major Democratic candidates (she says no), and her shock at being criticized for going on with the campaign despite her illness.

You're here in San Francisco again for another gay rights event. Why do you support gay marriage? Why not civil unions?

I remember hearing [former GOP Sen. Rick] Santorum ranting about how homosexual marriage threatens heterosexual marriage. I could be wrong, but I think heterosexual marriage is threatened more by heterosexuals. I don't know why gay marriage challenges my marriage in any way.

But your husband feels differently; he's a civil unions guy.

Well, I think it's a struggle for him, having grown up in a Southern Baptist church where it was pounded into him. I was raised a Methodist in military churches. Poverty was talked about; I don't remember homosexuality ever being mentioned. And I don't think that Christians who aren't engaged in a political campaign ever talk about it. They talk about poverty and other issues talked about in the Bible. But in churches, in political season, there's plenty of ginning up this issue.

You came to San Francisco and gave a speech before the gay pride parade, but then you were criticized for not being on a float or marching in the parade ...

I don't care, it doesn't matter to me. People who are going to be critical about that probably aren't for my husband to begin with. But honestly, it would be an enormous luxury to come here and do a full-day event, for anything. We went to a town festival in Iowa, and they had things going on all day and we went for an hour, and then we're on to the next thing. We never get to come to an event and stay for all the activities.

I'm going to talk to you about the poverty tour, but I do have to spend five minutes on Ann Coulter. When we write about her on Salon, we have a smart, vocal minority of readers who say, Why do you bother? Why give her attention?

I've heard that too, I got that when I made the call.

So why did you bother to phone in?

Ignoring the fact that she exists doesn't make her go away. If it did, you wouldn't hear me utter her name. So I think maybe the better thing to do is simply confront people like her. Are you going to stop them? Under no circumstances will you stop them. But maybe you empower other people to stand up, and maybe that has an effect. When I travel, so many older people thank me for what I did. Because the vile kind of way Ann Coulter thinks and talks, that was not ever part of the public discourse until recently.

Right afterward I was on MSNBC with Dan Abrams and he asked me, "If you were Elizabeth Edwards' advisor, would you have told her to make the call?" And I said I didn't think anyone advised you -- I thought it was your idea, nobody tells you what to do.

Yes, well, I knew she was doing "Hardball," and I knew it was a call-in show. So I called the [Edwards] campaign about getting the number, and they were like, Oh, that's a good idea. And then I mentioned the 2003 column [where Coulter mocked John Edwards' discussion of their son Wade's death in a car crash] and you could see them get worried, like "Oh, my God, she's carrying around in her mind a 2003 column? Maybe we don't want her calling ..."

Maybe they just wouldn't bother getting you the number.

Right. And later on, I talked to somebody, not an advisor -- I really don't have anybody advising me -- and not someone in the campaign. She'd been in a previous campaign, and she said, "Oh, I wouldn't have done that. I think that you put yourself at risk, subject to criticism unnecessarily." I understand the advice -- if you were advising somebody you might say that -- but that exact attitude is what protects somebody like Ann Coulter. Nobody wants to jump in the mud puddle with her.

The thing is, actually, she doesn't agree to many debates; it's very rare. She seems formidable, but she's a coward because she ducks debates.

So I got the number in case I wanted to call in. And I sat and watched [the show], and I thought, well, there's really nothing to call in about. It was getting close to the time I had to leave. I might have gotten on a plane and left -- I really might not have ever called. Maybe Chris [Matthews] brought some of those things up because he knew I was watching.

Well, he was told you might call, and Coulter was told you might call, right?

Yes, I saw what ["Hardball" producer] Tammy Haddad said on television; she is a completely straight player, which is why I knew she would tell [Coulter] that I'd gotten the phone number and I might call. But I almost didn't. I sat there and watched her say all these things that weren't true -- Saddam actually did have WMD, just not huge stockpiles. I thought, if that's true, we don't hear Cheney saying this? Or this discredited idea that Saddam's top aides were working with al-Qaida. So she's saying things with which I completely disagree, but I'm not calling in. She's wrong, but that's OK -- we can disagree. Then she started in again on John: She misdescribed what Bill Maher said [Coulter falsely claimed the HBO host had said he wished the failed Cheney assassination attempt had succeeded] and then she used it as an excuse to be able to say it about John. But if it's repulsive for Bill to say it, then isn't it repulsive for her to say it?

And you were able to raise money around it?

Yes. John is trying to run a substantive campaign. It's not about window dressing. These are the policies, like them or not, and it's the exact opposite of what she's saying and doing.

But weren't you also saying that it's time for Democrats to stand up for themselves, which so many Democrats haven't? To fight back?

Yes, and we were saying, Here's a way you can do it. But I didn't put her on TV at the end of the quarter. That's when we were going to be making a push to raise money; that's when everybody's doing it.

How much money did you raise?

I honestly don't know. The campaign probably knows.

But you did well.

We did. It was hard to get to our Web site for a few days. And you know, in some ways I'd like to continue what I started, just hammer home the unacceptability of Ann Coulter and what she's doing to the dialogue. I'd like to follow her around and harass her. Maybe Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh too. But then I become what I'm trying to fight -- I think it's counterproductive.

OK, we've given Coulter enough time. So why a poverty tour?

We have short attention spans. What happened after Katrina is that people were stirred to action; there were an enormous number of contributions by people trying to make a difference. But then we forget. We've forgotten Katrina victims, we've forgotten the face of poverty. So the audience for the tour -- well, in fact, the audience when John does these things is really him. At the poverty center in Chapel Hill, N.C., we say there are all these students, but there's really only one student -- it's John, soaking it all in.

He has been criticized for using the poverty center politically, and he has been criticized for being paid to give a speech on poverty at UC-Davis -- how do you respond to that?

Well, that speech didn't come through the poverty center, it came through [a speaking agency]; both of us are signed up and get speaking fees. I don't have a job anymore; this is the way we pay for everything. So yes, we periodically get paid to give speeches, and this one was about poverty. Can you never give a paid speech about poverty? Let me say, John speaks about poverty for free a lot. A lot. And he did make more for that speech than he made at the poverty center for a year, where he talked about poverty all the time, where he taught classes.

Well, you must wonder: Why isn't it equally big news that Rudy Giuliani blew off his Iraq Study Group meetings to get paid much more to give his speeches, which weren't about poverty? Why doesn't that story follow Giuliani around?

A number of reasons. There's just a lot less investigative reporting on political campaigns than there should be.

But when that story came out -- Newsday broke it -- it seemed like a big scoop to me.

I think that maybe the Romney campaign, the McCain campaign, are not pushing it to the other outlets ...

Are you saying some other Democrat pushed the poverty speech story to the media?

I don't know about that one, but I do know that some of these stories are being pushed by other Democrats. Come on, we talk to the same people. But it's not like we have completely clean hands; our research people will share things with reporters -- not this kind of nonsense, this is irrelevant. But John has a lot of loyal supporters who know poverty is not a sexy issue and who respect him for caring about it. How do you unseat those people? You suggest that his interest is disingenuous, that he has taken money for a poverty speech, he paid too much for a haircut, he has a big house.

So in January 2009, what's the first thing John Edwards does to make life different for poor people in America?

Well, a lot of it is a legislative agenda that needs to pass, but some of it he can do right away. We need to make certain we lift up people who are working but are still in poverty, by enforcing existing labor laws that are not enforced. He wants to triple the earned-income tax credit (not a sexy issue but very important) and raise the minimum wage -- if you raise it by a dollar, 900,000 people are raised out of poverty. You enforce anti-discrimination laws, and you raise many women out of poverty. You deal with healthcare issues and school issues. His healthcare agenda is one of the first things he wants to get passed.

When you look back at the Clinton experiment in healthcare reform back in 1993 and '94, what do you learn from what they did, or failed to do?

I remember watching an incredibly impressive appearance by Hillary before some kind of congressional committee on C-SPAN. She answered the questions really impressively. Some of them were very hostile, but I remember one thing: She kept referring to [the administration's] program, and she would gesture to this huge stack of documents that represented their "plan." It's such a long time ago, I hope I'm remembering this correctly, but it made such a visual impression on me. And one of the things they did wrong was [presenting] the visual of this big plan, that government was going to do all of that, instead of explaining it, without that visual, just to say: "If you have a Blue Cross/Blue Shield card in your pocket, and you're happy with that, nothing's changing for you, except the cost is likely to go down. There's nothing for you to be afraid of." I don't think they did a good job explaining that.

Part of it is that when we talk in complex ways we exhibit enormous command of the information; we're speaking to elite media, but we're not speaking to the people who are going to be affected by the policies and reassuring them. It is hard to simplify some of these things -- they're really complex. But this is actually what John does extraordinarily well. [As a trial attorney he learned] to describe complex medicine to people who aren't trained, and to say the doctor is wrong, in a way that respects them and doesn't talk down, and moves them. And he can never be dishonest because there's another lawyer sitting right there, ready to take away what he needs, which is their trust, if he's dishonest. So I'm convinced he has the capacity to explain these complicated things in a way that people understand -- and not to be subject to that guy who's paid to call him a liar.

Do you ever have twinges about, well, you're supporting this great guy, your husband, but against the first credible woman candidate and the first credible African-American candidate in the race?

No, I don't. I wind up talking about this a lot. My job as the mother of daughters is to make sure my children see that every opportunity is available to them. What we hope to achieve is a society that doesn't value a white man because he's a white man, but also doesn't value a woman because she's a woman, or a black because he's a black. So it bothers me that the pitch is made, as it is, that there's an obligation of people to give support. When I was a lawyer, I was the first female lawyer many people had ever seen. I had an obligation to my client to do the work right, but I thought constantly about my obligation to the women who came after me. If I didn't do a good job, they wouldn't get a chance to sit where I'm sitting. I think one of the things that make me so completely comfortable with this is that keeping that door open to women is actually more a policy of John's than Hillary's.

How do you see that?

On the issues that are important to women, she has not ... well, healthcare, that's enormously important to women, all the polls say, and what she says now is, we're going to have a national conversation about healthcare. And then she describes some cost-saving things, which John also supports, but she acts like that's going to make healthcare affordable to everyone. And she knows it won't. She's not really talking about poverty, when the face of poverty is a woman's face, often a single mother. She gave that speech on abortion a few years ago [saying abortion should be "safe, legal and rare"].

Look, I'm sympathetic, because when I worked as a lawyer, I was the only woman in these rooms, too, and you want to reassure them you're as good as a man. And sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues. I'm sympathetic -- she wants to be commander in chief. But she's just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see. John is. And then she says, or maybe her supporters say, "Support me because I'm a woman," and I want to say to her, "Well, then support me because I'm a woman." The question is not so much how she campaigns -- that's theater. The question is, what does her campaign tell you about how she'll govern? And I'm not convinced she'd be as good an advocate for women. She needs a rationale greater for her campaign than I've heard. When she announced her candidacy she said, "I'm in it to win it." What is that? That's not a rationale. Same with Senator Obama -- I've yet to hear a rationale. John is extremely clear about what he can accomplish and why he's the one to do it.

[Editor's note: Matt Drudge has linked to the above answer with a banner headline saying "Gender Bender: Wife Edwards Says Hillary 'Behaving Like a Man.'" Joan Walsh responds here.]

I was actually more sympathetic to her abortion speech than you, I think. I was raised Catholic, and I have relatives who are on some level pro-choice, as in, well, it's very difficult, but who can really make that choice but a woman? But they're extremely squeamish about abortion, and they want to make it very rare. Don't we need to include them in this dialogue?

I don't think we should muddle the language. Yes, we have to be able to talk to someone who's squeamish about it, but the question really is, who should make the decision? And it has to be the woman. Hillary may be expressing exactly what she believes -- I hope she is -- but the wiggle room in what she says makes me feel uncomfortable. I don't think she has found the best way yet to explain her position to move the people who are squeamish.

Speaking of Senator Clinton, your husband is getting rapped for maybe collaborating with her to close some of the debates to the full group of Democratic candidates ...

Well, John answered that, and I posted on MyDD [July 13].

You blogged on it on MyDD? That's funny. You're famous for that, actually -- people always said you were a Daily Kos diarist under another name.

I wasn't. But I have blogged using other screen names before. Before the Whole Foods guy got in trouble [the Wall Street Journal revealed last week that CEO John Mackey used pseudonyms to deride competitors online] I decided that that wasn't such a good idea. But what I said was, what John said was, there is a need to get the debates more serious. You have these formats with 60-second answers, and in 60 seconds, John's position on healthcare sounds just like Hillary's answer, when it couldn't be farther apart. So we need to find a way to have serious debates, that's all John is saying. Maybe it's two candidates at a time. Maybe it's three hours, but nobody would go for that. But in the WMUR debate [cosponsored with CNN in June] we argued to include Mike Gravel. He is clearly a Democrat, he's not Lyndon LaRouche. I know Dennis [Kucinich] is now making noise, but Dennis knows John is not interested in not having him participate. But we have got to find a way to make these debates better.

I can't wrap this up without asking about your health. Were you prepared for the criticism you got for continuing to campaign?

I had no idea I'd get that kind of criticism. But you know, people who've been in this situation haven't criticized me. And the people who haven't -- I just hope they never go through it. And it got worse after [the] Coulter [incident]. Well, we were talking about home-schooling the kids anyway, before I got sick. John's gone all the time, I'm gone a lot, and it was going to be the only way for us to be together as a family.

But you know, after all I've been through, I realize: You don't know exactly what life lessons you taught your kids until much later. You don't. And maybe the most important life lesson for them is for me to say, When bad things happen, you don't let them take you down. If I hadn't continued to campaign, I'd be sending the opposite message: When bad things happen, go hide. Do I know with absolute certainty we're doing the right thing? I don't. Having been through what I've been through, I hope people trust I wouldn't risk my relationship with my children. I think this is the right choice.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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