How cancer survivors think about the Edwards scandal

I can't judge Elizabeth Edwards' decision to campaign passionately for her husband after reading this post.

Published August 12, 2008 7:12PM (EDT)

The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus was nice enough to remember an interview I did with Elizabeth Edwards just over a year ago, which made a lot of news because she said her husband, John, was a better candidate for women than front-runner Hillary Clinton. "She's just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see," Edwards told me. "John is." Marcus calls Edwards' energetic defense of her philandering husband, even after she knew the truth, "creepy."

I respect Marcus, but I don't share her view on Elizabeth Edwards. First of all, I think men who are bad husbands can still be excellent political advocates for women. The infamous Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, expanded the earned-income tax credit, appointed our first female secretary of state and attorney general and fought off attacks on abortion rights. He was a much better president for women's rights than George W. Bush, who has never been caught and almost never rumored to be cheating on his wife, Laura. I am not sure that Edwards' record indicates he was a better women's advocate than Hillary Clinton, but it's fair for Elizabeth Edwards to have made that argument even knowing he had strayed.

I'm still pretty furious with John Edwards, not for the affair, but for the way he handled it. I came out blasting him on Saturday morning, in Broadsheet, after watching his unconvincing and self-serving performance on "Nightline" Friday. But with a few days of reflection, I feel less vehemence. I was moved by this post in Open Salon, "Surviving cancer, surviving affairs," by a woman whose husband suffered cancer. A brief excerpt:

"Both partners may be just sick to death of sickness. And that's the first thing my husband said when I mentioned John Edwards' confession. He said, maybe Edwards had an affair because he just wanted things to be normal again. Maybe he was tired of cancer and treatment.

"My first thought was that maybe one or both of them just couldn't see a way to reconnect erotically after breast cancer. Speaking only for myself again, when I had a scare with an unclear mammogram -- one that took months to clear up -- I felt profoundly alienated from my body as a source of pleasure. And I didn't even have cancer, just a bad case of paranoia!

"Maybe having an affair when your spouse has just faced down mortality is a way of affirming your own survival. Maybe it's a form of denial about your partner's mortality, and your own. This might be just an extension of the stereotypical mid-life crisis -- but cranked up to eleven.

"And maybe, with the pressures of raising two young kids and running for president the Edwards[es] just hadn't yet figured out how to be a couple together again. My husband and I struggled enough, and we only had two little kids and a couple of university jobs.

"In the end, why John Edwards strayed will remain a mystery to everyone outside his family, and that's only right. They deserve their privacy. Elizabeth has asked for privacy as they work through this. A marriage should remain a mystery to everyone outside it."

There's more; check it out. While you're on Open, please read Dan Conley's great critique of Barack Obama and John McCain's reactions to the Russia-Georgia conflict. And visit one of my favorite new bloggers, the squirrel, a very ... candid restaurant owner in Chicago.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections John Edwards