Christensen

Elizabeth Edwards was both ordinary and extraordinary

STAFF WRITERDecember 9, 2010 

  • A funeral service for Elizabeth Edwards is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh. She is expected to be buried in a private ceremony at Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery where the Edwardses' son Wade is buried.

    The family requests that donations be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation, created after Wade was killed at age 16 in an automobile accident.

A little over a decade ago, Elizabeth Edwards was a Raleigh homemaker, soccer mom and lawyer, living a normal suburban life, shopping at Crabtree Valley Mall, browsing at Quail Ridge Books or dining at Caffe Luna.

When she died Tuesday, all three major television networks led their broadcasts with lengthy reports on her life and her death.

It is hard to imagine the demise of other political spouses, say a Teresa Heinz, a Jill Biden or a Cindy McCain, drawing such attention.

The media spotlight shown on Elizabeth Edward's death was more akin to a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or a Princess Diana than that of a political spouse, said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University.

Although Elizabeth Edwards rose to national prominence because of her husband's political career, it was the trials and tribulations of her personal life - and how she handled them - that made her into a national figure.

"The interest extends beyond politics and is not primarily politics," Rohde said.

Former Sen. John Edwards propelled the couple into the national scene with his election to the Senate, his two runs for president, and his place on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate in 2004.

People could relate

When Elizabeth Edwards first entered the national stage, the public saw a plain-spoken woman who looked a lot like their next door neighbor and who was not afraid of making fun of her handsome, youthful-looking husband.

In an age when much of the public views people in politics as plastic, Elizabeth Edwards was real.

The loss of her 16-year-old son Wade in an automobile accident was real. Her constant battle with her weight was real. Her battle with breast cancer was real. Her dealing with a cheating husband who had a child out of wedlock was real.

For many women, Elizabeth Edwards' travails - and her spirit in dealing with them - made her a person to be admired.

Websites around the country this week were filled with tributes to the spirit of a woman who would not give up - a sort of Jim Valvano in a pantsuit.

"The existence of that personal connection was the basis for the wide coverage of her passing," Rohde said.

Elizabeth Edwards also made herself into a public figure, and continued to burnish her image even as her husband faded from public view.

She was willing to publicly talk about the loss of her son, her illness, and her husband's infidelities. Someone in a different age, or with a different personality, might have taken a more private route.

But in a transparent, tell-all era, Elizabeth Edwards wrote about her problems in two best-selling memoirs and talked about them with Oprah and Larry King and on countless other national TV programs. She seemed to have her own personal People Magazine correspondent.

In control to the end

Elizabeth Edwards, an intelligent, articulate woman, was able to control the narrative of her life until the end, even issuing a final statement to her public.

The TV and newspaper stories and obituaries focused on the positive side of Elizabeth Edwards - her courage, her intelligence, her plainspokenness and her devotion to her family. And it played down what all her campaign aides and reporters knew could be a difficult personality in private.

There were only passing mentions that she enabled her husband to run for president in 2008, knowing that he had an extramarital affair, a secret could have blown up the Democrats' chances of winning the presidency if her husband had succeeded in getting the nomination.

The Guardian, the liberal British newspaper, noted that all the controversies surrounding her seem to have been forgotten this week.

"In death," wrote The Guardian, "Elizabeth Edwards is once again an inspiration to America."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532