By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—What I keep remembering during the long conversation about cancer and politics, about ambition and parenting, about Elizabeth and John Edwards, is the video I watched the day before their announcement.
On YouTube, the candidate was shown grooming his hair in a TV green room, while a soundtrack from “West Side Story” played the tune “I Feel Pretty.” It was no less an attack ad for its snide humor. The message was that Edwards was not one of “us.” He was a member of some android species of politician.
Then John and Elizabeth came before the public with two statements: Her cancer is back. The campaign will go on. They began talking publicly about how two people choose to live in the face of illness and the universal death sentence that is suddenly more imminent.
This is what Elizabeth says: “Either you push forward with the things that you were doing yesterday or you start dying.” “I am denying it [cancer] control over how I spend the rest of my life.” “The best thing you can give your children is wings.”
It doesn’t get more real than this. Nor does it get more raw. Nor more human.
If the personal is political, politics is also incredibly personal. James David Barber, the late political scientist, once quipped that nobody knows the word deficit but everyone knows the word adultery. Well, few people know the details of John Edwards’ healthcare policy, but everyone knows the word cancer.
How many families live in that tender time frame between “we got it all” and “it’s back”? How many families are up at night, figuring odds that vary as much as the prognosis for metastatic breast cancer: a 26 percent chance or an 81 percent chance to live five years? How many juggle the way to think and live in an uncertain but certainly limited time frame?
Within days, with some awful symmetry, the White House announced that Tony Snow’s cancer also was “back.” In my own circle of family and friends, there is one beating the odds on mesothelioma and yet fully aware that the disease eventually will win. There is another living with multiple myeloma ... until she won’t.
It is no surprise that every one of us has an opinion on the Edwardses’ choices. Not just Rush Limbaugh, who accused the Edwardses of turning their eyes to the campaign instead of God. Not just “Toddo11,” who blogged, “How is he supposed to take care of his country when he doesn’t even take care of his family?” Not just the 12,000 who e-mailed Elizabeth encouraging words in the first days after their announcement.
We each have an opinion on whether continuing a campaign shows courage or denial. On whether quitting would show acceptance or defeat. We have an opinion on whether children need wings or a cocoon. Our views about facing cancer are as varied—and conflicted—as the eulogies of its victims: She fought every inch of the way. She accepted it with grace.
The truth is that the Edwardses made their decision the way we all do. We make choices based on who we are and what we believe and what is important to us. It is not simply a mathematical equation, it is a narrative. It’s not just a matter of medical calculation, it contains the arc of memoir.
Elizabeth’s decision is at one with her character, steeled through the death of her son, the birth of two more children, the refusal to be a victim, and the fierce determination to write her legacy. Her husband’s decision says less about unbridled ambition than about a sense of mission. This too may be the family narrative being created for their children, whatever happens.
Candidates come with medical histories. Giuliani with prostate cancer, McCain with skin cancer and 70 years. Clinton’s husband has heart disease, Romney’s wife has multiple sclerosis. As for the others, be mindful of the uncertainty of life.
I don’t how the Edwards story will play out politically. But if we worry about how loss might affect a president, have we forgotten about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Will?
The Edwards announcement followed the time frame of politics. They got out ahead of the story and got ahead of the medicine. Soon she, and we, will know more.
But we already know something about facing illness and death the way you face life. “We’re all going to die,” said Elizabeth. “And I pretty much know what I’m going to die of. ... But I do want to live as full and normal a life as I can from this point on.” And so, life is her legacy.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group