Sunday, July 22, 2007

Elizabeth Edwards Front and Center

There is something deeply disturbing about seeing the apparently terminal illness of the wife of a Presidential candidate so prominently featured. It used to be that such an affliction was considered to be a deeply private and personal matter. I cannot help but feel that we've lost something when it becomes a focal point of a political campaign -- as this piece in the Wall Street Journal matter-of-factly reports it to be:

Mr. Edwards's strategists planned to make her a central feature of the campaign, believing both Democrats and Republicans could identify with her experiences, including a dead child, breast cancer, infertility, weight-loss struggles, aging parents, mother to both adult and young children, childhood of moving constantly as a Navy brat. "Elizabeth would be the A-number-one top surrogate for John," says Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager.

Then in March, she broke a rib while playing with her young son and getting a hug from her husband. She visited a doctor and discovered something that could be cancer on her X-rays. The next day, Mr. Edwards went with his wife for complete body scans. The cancer had metastasized. The couple faced the media on March 22 and explained that they would continue.

Behind the scenes, campaign staffers were thrilled at the surge in interest and Mrs. Edwards's "high likeability," but worried that "too much exposure could cause a backlash," according to one adviser. Mrs. Edwards wanted to be open about the cancer recurrence but didn't want to give specific details on her treatment or prognosis. "'Let's follow Elizabeth as she goes through her cancer' would be almost exploitive," she told them.

'Almost' exploitive? 'Following Elizabeth Edwards through her cancer' would be clearly and obviously exploitive. After all, why else would you call it 'following her around,' instead of something non-exploitive like 'answering questions and downplaying.' The only question is whether -- her denials notwithstanding -- that's what we've got. It sure looks a lot like it.

This article examines Elizabeth Edwards medical treatments, prognosis, hopes for the future, and her plans for her loved ones after her death. Beyond the macabre nature of inviting the national media to dissect it with you, this will clearly have the effect of making some people far more sympathetic to her husband's campaign. The only question is whether any of those folks turned off by it -- like myself -- would ever have backed Edwards in the first place.

A sample of what the Edwards family shared with the Journal:

Between campaign stops and monitoring political blogs, she is working on a "dying letter" to her three children -- a "guide to life" she started before her diagnosis but which takes on more poignancy now. Her advice runs from balancing work and family to telling her children they should always wear solids instead of stripes or plaid -- otherwise, she warns, you'll look back at old photos and cringe at what you're wearing. She is sorting out her and her children's possessions -- clothes, papers, photographs -- and boxing them to save after her death...

In boxes spread over a basketball court in the gym on their Chapel Hill estate, Mrs. Edwards is dividing clothes from each of her children into what should be kept and what can be given away. Otherwise, "John would just throw all this out," Mrs. Edwards says. She especially wants the family to keep the Halloween costumes she made for each of her four children.

When she finds Wade's baseball cards, she presents them to Jack. A few minutes later, she hears Jack and Emma Claire fighting over them. "I want something of Wade's too," her nine-year-old daughter cries. "You're right," Mrs. Edwards tells her, dividing the cards.

Mrs. Edwards is clearly brave, and one can only admire her work ethic. I think it's also important that as we face life and death, each of us must follow his or her own heart in deciding how to face mortality. That obviously extends to Mrs. Edwards. I join many in praying for a long and happy life for her.

But I don't want this glimpse inside her illness. And I can't see a good reason for the Edwardses to cooperate in a piece like this one at this time. Since they've decided not to exploit the illness, should they not have been pleased that coverage of her cancer had largely disappeared from the front pages -- allowing them to deal with it privately and within the family?

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