Last February, early 2006, John Edwards came to Ira Allen Chapel, at the University of Vermont. Edwards was the keynote speaker for an amazing one-day conference on poverty, put together by Matt Dunne, who was running for Lieutenant Governor at the time.
And I couldn’t have been more excited to see the guy.
When Edwards got the Vice Presidential nod in 2004, I was all but jumping up and down. He seemed to me precisely what Kerry needed at the time. Edwards was youth and energy, and his biography — always articulated in a rich Southern accent — made him an instant Everyman.
This wasn’t just a winning ticket. Screw two terms. This was a lock on the next sixteen years. And then came Election Night. Then came Ohio. And that was the end of that dream.
So I hadn’t thought much about Edwards until that afternoon in 2006, sitting in a pew in Ira Allen Chapel.
By then it was clear that Edwards was gunning for the nomination in his own right this time around; he had spent more time in Iowa than anyone else, beginning within weeks of the defeat in November.
But before launching into his modified stump speech, Edwards addressed his wife’s health. Elizabeth Edwards was then completing treatments for her first bout with breast cancer. The campaign had waited until a few days after Election Day in 2004 to announce that diagnosis, which seemed a bit strategic but not suspiciously so.
But Edwards informed all of us in the Chapel that his wife was doing very well, and that she sent her regards, and her thanks for the ground-swell of support nationwide.
And then Edwards did something that rubbed me the wrong way: he began to describe his travels across America since the last election, dwelling on the many places he had gone, the many impoverished Americans he had seen and heard, the many audiences he had addressed on the subject of poverty.
And as he described his restless movement across the map of America, I grew more uncomfortable, because he seemed to have no idea that the first picture he had presented of himself — the caring husband of a woman with life-threatening cancer — was at least partially overshadowed, even contradicted by the second — that of a man obsessed with winning the next election, even if that meant little or no down-time between elections.
I didn’t write about the Edwards visit at the time, which was strange; when Barack Obama came, I wrote several long detailed posts about it. I wrote a similar long post about Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. when he passed through Vermont.
But somehow when Edwards left the state, I liked him less than before he arrived. I trusted him less.
And the crux of that trust deficit was his response to his wife’s breast cancer.
It may be an utterly unfair judgment; it may be both untrue and ungenerous.
But that is what I felt, and whenever I talked presidential contenders from that day forward, I told the story of that afternoon to make my point about Edwards.
So when Edwards scheduled a press conference to discuss changes in his wife’s condition last month, I read the accounts of it with an admittedly jaundiced eye. And again, to be honest, I didn’t like what I saw. Elizabeth Edwards not only had a recurrence of cancer; her doctors had now diagnosed it as “treatable but not curable.”
Yet Edwards declared that not only would his second run for the White House go on, it would go on “stronger than before.”
And he framed the choice before him in a way that seemed to border on the disingenuous: “You can go cower in the corner and hide or you can go out there and stand up for what you believe in. We have no intentions of cowering in the corner.”
Surely there was a middle ground between “cowering” and conducting a 24-hour, 7-days a week high-pressure — and increasingly long-shot — bid for the Presidency.
Yes, Elizabeth Edwards herself seemed very much to want to continue campaigning. Yes, doctors came on television to declare that her diagnosis would not strictly prohibit her from actively aiding the campaign.
But other than open warfare, there is no more stressful environment than a Presidential campaign. Period. And even a sympathetic media scrum remains a media scrum. Period. People eat poorly on the campaign trail; their stomach is perpetually in knots. And if they are the spouse of the candidate, they understand that they will see their husband or wife almost not at all.
No one will ever be able to convince me it is a good or healthy place for a person to cope with radiation, chemotherapy and intimations of mortality.
In short, it wasn’t about what Elizabeth wanted. I would have liked — as a voter, as a person, as a husband, maybe as a father — to see some evidence that Edwards was willing to place his wife’s health on a par with his race for the White House.
He has always been a candidate short on resume, and long on expectations; there is no reason why he couldn’t have returned to the game 5 or 10 years down the road, both stronger and wiser.
The national press has more or less decided to give Edwards a pass on the way he has handled this new cancer crisis. And I would like to do the same. But I had strong doubts about the way he handled this issue the last time around, and I’ve found this second time that my heart won’t let me let it go.
Edwards says he can’t drop out because the things he’s fighting for are too important, but let’s say what needs saying: John Edwards isn’t offering anything to America that America can’t wait to possess. He is just a man, after all, a man who would be President.
And America is lousy with men and women who would be President, this time of year.
[This piece ran first in the Vermont Guardian.]