Wednesday, March 28, 2007

John Edwards: I'm Going to Be the Jerk That Says It

I'm going to be the jerk that says it. If John Edwards is elected President, there is an 85% percent chance that the United States government will be led by a man coping with the final illness and death of his wife; a man who will become the single parent of two grieving pre-teen children.

It's not a pleasant thing to say, and the national media isn't saying it. Since Elizabeth Edwards' announcement that her breast cancer has metastasized to a rib and possibly a lung, coverage of John Edwards has fallen almost exclusively within five narratives. The first two are human-interest stories: (1) John Edwards is a jerk for not dropping out of the race, and (2) John Edwards is so courageous for not dropping out of the race. The third and fourth narratives concern the political horse race: (3) John Edwards will be too distracted to campaign/fundraise effectively, and (4) Sympathy or admiration for John & Elizabeth Edwards will lead to a boost in voter/donor support. Only the fifth narrative concerns Edwards' fitness for the job of President--as opposed to presidential candidate--and only in simplistic terms: (5) By remaining in the race, John Edwards has shown himself to be dedicated and courageous, and these are good qualities for a President.

Coverage of Elizabeth Edwards has centered around the usual things polite people say when they find out someone has incurable cancer: that she's brave, that she's always been a fighter, that there are medical advances every day, that statistics are just statistics and there's no reason in the world she can't be in the 15%, etc.

If your boss, best friend, or bus driver told you that his wife had metastatic breast cancer, it would be entirely fitting to say these sorts of things and leave it at that. You would never dream of asking "so, what effect do you think her near-certain death will have on your job performance?" But John Edwards is not running for bus driver, he is running for President of the United States. And he didn't tearfully confide his wife's illness to us over lunch; the Edwardses announced it at a specially-convened press conference, to a national media that would not have shown up if the former Senator were not seeking the nation's highest office.

To my mind, our national discussion of Elizabeth Edwards' illness must move beyond politeness and face some cold, unpleasant facts: namely, that most people suffering from stage four breast cancer today will die before January, 2013; that most people whose spouses die experience incapacitating grief for an unpredictable period of time; that children the age of Emma Claire and Jack Edwards (currently 9 and 7) who lose a parent typically require a tremendous amount of attention from their surviving parent; and that the modern Oval Office may well demand 1461 days of its occupant's undivided attention.

I am not suggesting that anyone categorically eliminate Edwards from consideration because he is likely to become widowed while in office. Other men have been widowed while President: John Tyler in 1842, Millard Fillmore in 1853, and Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Andrew Jackson's wife died three months before Jackson took office in 1829, and Chester Arthur's wife died only a year before the Garfield assassination made Arthur president in 1881. All of these men served out their terms (some with greater distinction than others) and historians can judge the effect that bereavement had on their presidencies.

We may perhaps conclude that the benefits of Edwards' abilities and policies outweigh the risk of his becoming incapacitated with grief while President. But to weigh these benefits and risks, we must first be willing to talk about them. The American media has for the most part abandoned covering the substance, rather than the contest, of elections; so discussing the benefits may have been a lost cause all along. It seems that squeamishness has precluded any intelligent consideration of the risks.


  1. "the modern Oval Office may well demand 1461 days of its occupant's undivided attention."

    Our current president has proven that's not at all true.

    What's the big deal? It's not as if the guy had a chance anyway.

  2. Perhaps I should qualify: the modern Oval Office may well demand 1461 days of a halfway competent occupant's undivided attention.

  3. Clinton did a pretty good job of compartamentalizing his attentions when he was stuck with the Lewinsky scandal. I think John Edwards can do the same. Hell, I don't even think Elizabeth Edwards would particularly mind having her husband briefed at her bedside. She seems like that kind of person.

    And I'd just like to say I'd rather have a president stuck with the handicap of mourning his wife for a brief time than a president consigned to being an asshole for the entire time.

  4. I agree with your analysis and you shouldn't have to be seen as a jerk for saying it. Frankly I think coverage would be a lot different if it were a candidate anybody thought had even half a chance at winning.

  5. What your post brings up for me is how unAmerican grief is made out to be.


    I agree with zil about compartmentlizing. Everyone who grieves does that and anyone who is president must be able to do that all the time. Grief does not always incapacitate a person. Besides, isn't that what his aides and shit would be for? Despite the "risks" of having a grieving president (if we are allowing that Edwards has any chance to win), I think, with the death of his wife, that there would be a refreshing chance for this country to reexamine the national attitude on grief and death.

    And how are you otherwise?

  6. Edwards did nothing for the Kerry-Edwards ticket except turn on some middle aged women living in places like, Illinois. Maybe this is about those women thinking they "have a chance" with him. Elizabeth Edwards looks really bad right now. She looks like a 70 year old woman.

  7. This whole thing reminds me of "American President," when Michael Douglas asks Martin Sheen if he would have gotten elected if his wife hadn't died.

    I think the media would have made a bigger deal out of this if it were Clinton or Obama. With Edwards, eh, the media just doesn't see the "grieving President" scenario as being likely.


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