Editor’s Note: Melissa Harris-Perry wrote the following appreciation of Elizabeth Edwards in May 2009. We resurface it on the occasion of Edwards’s death.
I admit it. I was a John Edwards supporter.
Having attended college and graduate school in North Carolina, the Tarheel state offered opportunities for my first involvement in political campaigns. In 1998 I posted fliers and stuffed envelopes for Edwards’s Senate campaign.
Early in 2006 I believed that Edwards had a real opportunity to win the Democratic presidential nomination. I suspected Obama had an insufficient ground organization to effectively challenge Clinton. (Hilarious in hindsight, I know.) I also suspected that Hillary was too polarizing and off-message to win. (I was a little closer on that prediction.) Edwards was my early pick, in part because he is a charming, white Southerner and whenever the Democrats had managed to win in the modern era it was with this kind of candidate: think Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
In assessing his electability I counted Elizabeth Edwards among John’s greatest political assets. Elizabeth is smart, tough and unafraid of political engagement. And her personal biography made John much more likeable. Elizabeth was the mother who supported her husband’s turn to politics after the tragic death of her son. Elizabeth was the woman who chose, in the face of this tragedy, to have more children much later than she had planned. To do this Elizabeth endured fertility treatments and the side effects that accompany them. Then Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hers is a compelling narrative shared, in parts, by many contemporary women. Hers is a story that resonates with women across partisan differences.
And John loved her.
Yes, he indulged in expensive haircuts. Yes, he seemed a little too slick and too sappy at the same time. Yes, his message was a bit one-note. But he loved a smart, funny, intense woman who gained weight and lost her breasts. John’s love and admiration for Elizabeth was among his most interesting personality traits. So campaign funds misappropriation aside, when John Edwards’s affair was revealed it was more than a routine ethical breach. It wiped away one of the things that had anchored him as a compelling public figure.
It was for these reasons that I followed Elizabeth Edwards’s return to public life last week. She was vilified by some and pitied by others. But more than the personal details of her estrangement, Elizabeth Edwards represents a broader problem of the role of women in American politics. I get the sense that Elizabeth is as angry about being cheated politically as much as being cheated on personally.