You may not remember, given all that has happened since, but when Elizabeth Edwards arrived on the Washington scene some 10 years ago, she was golden. The capital tends to confuse fame with merit, and so it sucks up to Senators and Cabinet Secretaries and talk-show hosts while politely ignoring their spouses. She was different. You heard that all the time. John Edwards? Yeah but you've got to meet his wife!
She was everything an up-and-comer's spouse is not supposed to be: funny, talkative, opinionated, brainy, vivid. She violated the rule that no one is allowed to outshine the candidate. I must say I never understood what people saw in her husband, and when I would ask for an explanation, what I usually heard was that he must be all right if she were on his team.
Back then, her biography seemed to trace the inspiring line of a Hollywood tearjerker: great success, interrupted by the unspeakable tragedy of her son Wade's death in a car accident, only to be renewed by grit and young children and new vistas.
Of course, that is not the obituary that will appear in the newspapers, for the intervening decade was cruel to her and devastating to her memory. By the time Edwards died on Dec. 7 at age 61 of relentless cancer at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C., she had seen herself humiliated by her husband's infidelity, while enduring the exposure of her own worst traits. People charmed by her at dinner parties evidently were lucky they weren't working for her under the pressure of a failing campaign.
A great Irish band of the 1980s, the Pogues, had a hit with Eric Bogle's song "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda." There's a line in it that might have spoken to Elizabeth Edwards: "Never knew there were worse things than dying."
In a sense, her time in the public eye was a long, slow death, a literal mortification. We come to see that Wade's death at least in the way she told the story was the beginning of it all. She said that in the devastated aftermath of that event, she and her husband set out to do something big and important in Wade's memory. Thus began a public life, and a painfully public death.
It's a mistake to think that we're seeing the real person when first we meet a public figure and just as big a mistake to think that we've understood a human being based only on her public life. Fame is a fun-house mirror, eternally distorting. I imagine that Edwards was never really the comet that she appeared to be years ago, and likely not quite the wreck she appeared to be at the end. Whoever she was, really, Elizabeth Edwards paid full price for her hopes and dreams.