Elizabeth Edwards' walk of pain

It was excruciating to watch the tough and brilliant cancer survivor talk about her husband's betrayal on "Oprah Winfrey." Just as bad was witnessing the depth of her denial.

Published May 8, 2009 10:38AM (EDT)

I've been watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show" here and there since well before I was in high school. In my time, I've caught some doozies -- the heroin-addicted family, Tom Cruise on the couch, You Get a Car. I've laughed; I've cried; I've wished the show wouldn't end; I've screamed to make it stop. Yet I cannot remember an hour spent with Ms. Winfrey over the past three decades that has felt more like slowly pushing rusty fishhooks through my eyeballs than the one on Thursday, during which I watched her interview Elizabeth Edwards about her husband's extramarital affair.

I am not the only person wondering, this week, as we commence one of the most sadomasochistic publicity jaunts in political history, what on earth Edwards is trying to accomplish by holding forth about her personal pain and exposing herself and her family not only to further gossip and humiliation, but to political censure. Her conversation with Oprah (which was so raw and extensive that at one point it made me do something a talk show never has: heave a monstrous and unwilling sob) was a good reminder of why Elizabeth is such a compelling player in this drama, and, alas, offered an opportunity to guess at some twistingly sad answers.

First, the circumstances. Next week, Elizabeth Edwards, a successful lawyer who, after the death of her teenage son Wade, chose to stay home, have two children in her late 40s and early 50s and support her husband's presidential prospects, is publishing a book called "Resilience." It is a book about strength, something that Edwards knows a lot about. Her first book, "Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength From Friends and Strangers," was an autobiography that also detailed her fight with breast cancer, which was diagnosed just a few days before her husband and his running mate, John Kerry, lost the devastating 2004 election. When her cancer returned, this time having reached her bones, in the spring of 2006, and the Edwardses announced that Elizabeth's illness would not keep John from his 2008 presidential bid, Elizabeth gave an interview in the New York Times in which she said, "I think the best thing you can give your children is wings, [to teach them to] stand by themselves in a stiff wind."

That sentence pierced me when I read it two years ago, and it's one that I have since turned over and over in my mind. I was moved by Edwards' ferocity, not only in the context of her son's death, her cancer battle and relapse diagnosis, the brutal toll of the 2004 loss, but in her determination to keep her husband's campaign moving forward despite it all. What a tough, tough lady. And a brilliant one to boot. Her first book was gorgeously written, and according to Oprah, who complimented Edwards on her beautiful prose, "Resilience" is, too. I always thought Elizabeth was the intellect and the motor behind John's political career, and it was in large part because of her brainy, energetic role that I was an Edwards supporter.

The Edwardses appeared to be true partners, something that Elizabeth acknowledged on Thursday, when Oprah was prodding around the paternity of Rielle Hunter's baby (apologies to Elizabeth, who treats the mistress as she-who-must-not-be-named), noting that she didn't know many men who would hold a woman's baby if it wasn't theirs. "Golly, then you don't know many politicians," Elizabeth responded. "Holding babies are us." She was a politician as much as her husband. She was also his most appealing human credential.

I suppose it is only fitting, now, that she is also the retailer of his shameful spiral. It was one in which he not only betrayed her, lying to an ill spouse for a year and a half about the extent of his indiscretion, but also imperiled the future of his party -- and by extension, his country -- making her culpable in that regard along the way.

On "Oprah" and (from the sound of some of the passages Winfrey read from) in "Resilience," Elizabeth is at her elegant, ambitiously transparent best in her attempts to narrate her pain. In some ways, I thought as I listened to her, this is her attempt to be a Joan Didion for the sick and the cuckolded, to stare directly at agony, embarrassment, fury and fear without blinking, and to describe it as honestly and precisely as possible. That's what she's doing, though like Didion's own blind spots in "The Year of Magical Thinking" (mostly about her relationship with her daughter), Edwards' tale also contains gaps of unconscious omission through which one could drive a Mack truck.

The Oprah spectacle began with Winfrey driving up to the Edwards' ginormous North Carolina house, a house built at a price that -- along with Edwards' widely reported $400 haircuts -- gravely imperiled his reputation as the candidate who cared about class and poverty. Oprah was greeted by the whole Edwards family, including John, who looked about as excited to have Oprah Winfrey arrive at his house to discuss his betrayal of wife and party as anyone would. That is to say, he looked like a man who was about to be dragged backward by his pinky toes through a field of soft horseshit.

Oprah then sat down with Edwards and encapsulated the whole sordid tale, starting with the discomfiting detail that John first admitted an affair to his wife two days after he declared his candidacy for president. Though Elizabeth confessed on "Oprah," and in "Resilience," that she was "leveled" by the initial revelation, she believed John's story that the affair with Hunter was a one-night stand for a year and a half, when he was finally forced to admit that he'd had an ongoing dalliance.

Oprah went for the jugular, asking Edwards about her admission, in "Resilience," that at her wedding to John almost three decades earlier, she had asked him for a single present, his fidelity. An eagle-eyed reader might suspect that if Edwards was already asking for such promises three decades ago, perhaps she had inklings of her husband's wandering attentions. But, she told Oprah, her concern stemmed from her own mother's fears about her father's infidelity. "It undermined her in so many ways," said Edwards. "Just the thought of it ... made her less than she could be. I did not want to see that happen to me." Here it is again, the Elizabeth Edwards whose strength has beguiled, a woman who is unafraid to lay bare that what she fears most is human weakness.

Later in the conversation, Oprah quoted a passage from "Resilience" about Elizabeth coming to terms with the fact that, after John's infidelity, "the way we were is no longer the way we can be" and that she must prepare for "a new reality, maybe a new life." Edwards' explanation to Oprah of what this means will be profoundly familiar to anyone who has been cheated on. "I was a pretty self-confident person," she said. "I had a pretty good idea of who I was, a pretty good idea of my limitations and my virtues. I looked like I looked. I was always struggling with weight ... And if I'm home I'll put a hairband in and wear silly striped socks and not worry about too much." She was comfortable with herself, with her appeal. But after her husband strayed, she told Oprah, "I'd think, do I look awful at home? Is that it? Am I too strident?"

As perplexing as her tortured tour may be, Edwards clearly has a couple of missions, and regaining her dignity and her sense of power are chief among them. One way to do that, of course, is to be the person who says everything that everyone else might be saying behind your back, so that they don't think you're clueless or weak. Another is to develop your own account of what happened, including the vulnerabilities that you are able to turn into strengths by expressing them with grace and beauty. Another is to trash that bitch who banged your husband in front of the whole world, with Oprah on your side.

Edwards is really good at executing all of these moves. Her unwillingness to use Hunter's name -- it was the single precondition of her interview with Winfrey -- was part of a larger point: that her husband's mistress is a fame-seeking leech. "If somebody wants to stand in the light that shines on John that's one thing," she said. "If they somehow work at destroying my family and my home to get into that light, then I'm really not interested in letting them in that light." Got that?

Edwards also took great pains, while regaling Oprah with the tale of how Hunter first came onto John by saying, "You are so hot," to explain that she couldn't really do her story justice because, "I don't know how to deliver such a line as that." She also said, "I don't know any people like this. I don't have any friends like this person." And, in a smackdown for the ages, when Oprah asked Elizabeth if she ever queried John about whether he was in love with Hunter, she replied, "I'm sure I asked that question, but it seemed impossible to me, and I think impossible to him."

Elizabeth's is an impressive show of leonine possessiveness, but it also gets uncomfortably close to the issue she is clearly not prepared to come to terms with: the possible paternity of Rielle Hunter's child. Asked by Oprah about the fact that Hunter has had a child and that the child is rumored to be Edwards', Elizabeth nodded and said, "That's what I understand." Does she think it's his child? "It doesn't look like my children," said Elizabeth. "I don't have any idea."

But these 10-foot-pole responses, especially in light of her desire to rip Hunter apart, worked only to convey that Elizabeth, like so much of the country that has read the papers and seen the photos of the candidate holding the baby, must believe the child to be John's. But she cannot allow herself to go there. The paternity, Edwards insisted, "is something completely extraneous to my life. This is not my life," she said. If the baby was found to be John's, "then that would be a part of John's life, but not a part of mine. I can't see any upside to making it a part of my life."

It was here in the interview that Elizabeth stuttered, paused, tripped over her tongue, and Oprah, who had no fear about going anywhere ("Do they ever say how long you have to live?" she inquired later in the conversation), held back, pushing and pushing but never pointing out what seemed glaringly obvious: Of course the paternity would have something to do with Elizabeth's life. If the baby were John's, and he became a part of its (or "her") life, then her three children would have a half-sibling. There could be a lifetime of interaction, of familial or pseudo-familial ties, binding the life she has made with her husband to the life that he may have literally made with another woman. And Elizabeth Edwards is sick. And while I hope that she lives another 10 years, she may not. And what she is looking into is a future in which her children may not only encounter but also grow up in contact with a woman she cannot bring herself to name and a baby she cannot bring herself to humanize. Elizabeth also told Winfrey about how hard she'd worked to make her marriage and her family work, and about how foolish Hunter was for thinking that she could simply come in and take her place. This admission reveals how much Edwards herself believes this to be a possibility, the thing that Hunter wants. This is why she's making clear to America -- and to her kids -- how little she thinks of Hunter. She wants to ensure that her husband can never make a life with her, can never make her very worst fears come true, after she's gone.

"You could easily find out" whose baby it was, Oprah pointed out, and Elizabeth, looking surprised to be tripped up by this obvious statement, agreed. "But it's not going to change my life in any way," said Elizabeth, and for the first time in my life, I did not believe her. I believe it would change everything, and that is why she can't process it.

What Edwards cannot escape is her own role in her husband's massive professional screw-up. She claimed her first reaction to the news of Edwards' affair was to tell him to get out of the campaign, but that he managed to convince her otherwise by pointing out how many questions would be asked if he bowed out two days after bowing in. That's a fair, but not great, excuse, plausible if she truly believed -- as she claims she did -- that John's indiscretion was a one-night thing, something that, alas, many politicians have on their résumés. But it doesn't hold up so well, as Winfrey pointed out, when Elizabeth's cancer relapse created an exit opportunity that not only would have provoked no questions, but might have protected them from gossip too disrespectful to dredge up under the circumstances. Elizabeth also told Oprah that she was unaware of the rumors, that she had heard nothing before her husband's forced confession a year and a half after he entered the presidential race.

These revelations are crushing to anyone with an idealized view of Elizabeth Edwards. She was supposed to be the responsible one, the direct one. Even if you thought he was kind of plastic-looking, smarmy, perhaps untrustworthy, Elizabeth was solid and dependable and straightforward. But here is the reality: She allowed her husband to risk the health of the nation, not to mention the health of her family. And she remained deaf and dumb to rumors that everyone was hearing. Why did they stay in the race, at the inevitable cost of their privacy, and the potential cost of a national election? Elizabeth has no cogent answers for this, except to note the crazy fantasy that perhaps drove them both. When Oprah asked if she knew why John had the affair, Elizabeth replied that she didn't know, but that perhaps "there was opportunity and didn't seem like there were any consequences." When it comes to their bad choices about the presidential campaign, and Elizabeth's current disavowal of Rielle Hunter's baby, it seems both Edwardses are deeply invested in wishing away the consequences.

But floating around all these mysteries and this lack of self-awareness is a brittle, smart consciousness and a gift for conveying the honest truth of her situation. When Oprah asked if she believed that he had only been with Hunter once, Edwards answered, "I did." And when Oprah pressed again, asking whether she believed that he had only cheated with this one woman, Edwards firmly confesses something much more complicated than simple credulity: "I believe that, and I want to believe that." It's a stomach turner of a sentence for anyone who's ever felt it.

The moment at which I actually cried was when Edwards noted that, for her children, who know about the affair, "maybe the cancer is a bigger thing in their lives than this woman's passing through." She related a story of Emma Claire reading a book about healthy food and approaching her to tell her, "Romaine lettuce is good for cancer. Do you eat Romaine lettuce?" The incident affected Elizabeth, she explained, because "it made me sad ... it made me realize that it was in her head."

By the time Oprah returned to her promised interrogation of John, who showed her his basketball court -- "I played Barack in there!" -- and affirmed that he sure does hope his wife stays with him because "Yeah, I mean, I love her. I care about her," it was easy to retreat to a cheap but true observation: Though Elizabeth Edwards was remarkably equipped for the worst in life, she deserved the best; it is a sadness that she didn't get it.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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Infidelity Oprah Winfrey Rielle Hunter