Elizabeth Edwards was a distinct political figure—the wife of a vice-presidential nominee and leading presidential contender who was consistently willing to stake out more dynamic and detailed positions than her husband. She was, for instance, dramatically more supportive of gay rights than John Edwards—so much so that when the former senator was asked about the issue during 2008 presidential debates he ended up having to explain why he had not yet "evolved" toward Elizabeth's more enlightened stances in favor of same-sex marriage and rescinding "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
I always enjoyed interviewing Elizabeth more than John because Elizabeth, who has died at age 61 after a long battle with cancer, was so much more likely to say something that mattered. And where Elizabeth Edwards said the most that mattered during the time of her greatest political prominence was in her embrace of the anti-war movement at a point when her husband and other leading Democrats remained troublingly tentative.
Always more deeply and specifically critical of the Iraq War, Elizabeth Edwards played an essential role in moving her husband toward a more aggressively anti-war position as he prepared for his 2008 presidential run. But it was not just John Edwards that Elizabeth moved. With a specific act in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential contest, the wife of the Democratic party's vice presidential candidate in that race gave a sort of official blessing to a more militant—and meaningful—anti-war activism.
In the summer of 2005—long before John Edwards apologized for his 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to take the country to war in Iraq—Elizabeth Edwards expressed support for Cindy Sheehan, as the mother of slain soldier Casey Sheehan was emerging as the face of a noisier, more unapologetic and more uncompromising antiwar movement.
Frustrated by the rising death toll and a sense that an undeclared war was turning into a Vietnam-style quagmire, Sheehan decided that a bold gesture was needed. She moved to Crawford, Texas, set up a tent and promised to camp out until George Bush agreed to meet with her and hear a mother who had lost her son in the war argue for bringing all the troops home.
Sheehan was ridiculed by the right—whole programs on Fox were devoted to attacking her—and dismissed by many Democrats who were satisfied to remain quiet as Americans grew increasingly frustrated with Bush and the Republicans on foreign and domestic policy issues.
But Elizabeth Edwards, who a decade earlier had lost her own teenage son in a car accident, heard the cry of a mother who had a vital message not just for Bush but for America.
At a time when few prominent political figures were willing to step up and tell President Bush to meet with Sheehan, Elizabeth Edwards contacted the antiwar mom, offered her support and then released an open letter that declared: "Cindy Sheehan is asking a very simple thing of her government, and she and her family, and most particularly Casey, have paid a very dear price for the right to ask this. Cindy wants Casey's death to have meant as much as his life—lived fully—might have meant. I know this, as does every mother who has ever stood where we stand. And the President says he knows enough, doesn't need to hear from Casey's mother, doesn't need to assure her that Casey's is not one small death in a long and seemingly never-ending drip of deaths, that there is a plan here that will bring our sons and daughters home. He doesn't need to hear from her, he says. He claims he understands how some people feel about the deaths in Iraq."
"The President is wrong," Elizabeth Edwards wrote. "Whether you agree or disagree with every part, or any part, of what Cindy wants to say, you know it is better that the President hear different opinions, particularly from those with such a deep and personal interest in the decisions of our government. Today, another voice would be helpful."
Elizabeth Edwards was attacked for the position she took; Ann Coulter devoted a section of her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism to specifically attacking Edwards as a member of "some kind of weird club" that says "having a loved one killed violently makes you an expert advocate for liberal policies."
Actually, what made Elizabeth Edwards an important advocate was her willingness to speak up—when other leading Democrats did not—about a war that should never have been initiated and that had gone horribly awry.
Elizabeth Edwards was right when she spoke up five years ago. More right than her husband or most other prominent Democrats at the time. And her letter, along with her public statements backing it up, had a significant impact. I traveled a good deal with Cindy Sheehan in 2006 and 2007 and I remember well how her supporters circulated the letter from Edwards and read it aloud at rallies. It gave them strength and helped to energize an antiwar movement that needed both grassroots activists and prominent backers to force the hand of presidents—then, and now.
The war in Iraq is not done, and the war in Afghanistan is becoming more of a quagmire.
Antiwar moms are still speaking out, along with members of families that have lost sons and daughters in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts—as part of the Gold Star Families Speak Out network. And Elizabeth Edwards is still right: "If we are decent and compassionate, if we know the lessons we taught our children, or if, selfishly, all we want is the long line of the brave to protect us in the future, we should listen to the mothers now."