Monday, February 07, 2005

John Edwards: Staying in the Game

Staying in the Game
One day, he lost the election. The next, he found out his wife had cancer. John Edwards is hanging tough
By Melinda Henneberger

Feb. 14 issue - I'm OK," former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards says, nodding determinedly, in a tone that makes clear he could be a lot better. It's been three months now since he lost an election one day and found out his wife, Elizabeth, had breast cancer the next. But in an interview last week at their home in Georgetown, he was neither falsely upbeat nor immobilized. On the contrary, the one-term senator and onetime trial lawyer is full of fresh plans, despite being fully aware that none of us can ever do more than pencil them in.

"I just picked up the kids' stuff, even if it doesn't look like it, so let's sit back here'' to talk about what comes next, he says, leading the way to a family room off the kitchen, where jars of Goldfish and Rice Krispies Treats compete for counter space with stacks of books that tell a little of the story: in one pile is a how-to called "Building Your Home'' and a copy of David Shipler's "The Working Poor: Invisible in America,'' along with a historical novel on the theme of race and some picture books belonging to their two younger children.

"They're just fine," he says of 4-year-old Jack and 6-year-old Emma Claire, "because their understanding is that Mommy has a bump on her breast and that bump is called cancer and she's gonna get well. It's been harder on Cate," their 22-year-old, "because she's lived with death and loss and she knows what that is," he adds, referring to their son Wade, who was killed in a freak highway accident in 1996 at the age of 16. Edwards knows, too, of course, and the worry shows on him. Yet the day his wife was diagnosed "was not even close to the worst day in our lives, is what Elizabeth says." For one thing, there is so much that can be done and that must be attended to, "unlike when Wade died, and there was nothing we could do."

She's almost through with her 16 weeks of chemo now, and when that's behind her she'll have surgery and then radiation. Sometime in the next few months, they'll put their house in Washington on the market. Come spring, when school lets out, they'll move back to North Carolina, where he has taken a position as director of the new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and his wife met there, 30 years ago, in their first year of law school. As he explains it, the center will study ways to lift people out of poverty.

The Edwardses have already bought some land out in the country there, where they are looking to build a new house. The kids will attend public school nearby. He'll also be burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, apparently, though he won't spell out how. (Some think-tank thing? "No, more like a commission thing.") Clearly, he'd like to preserve the option of running for president again in four years. But he is not being coy when he says he can't focus on that at the moment.

He and John Kerry, who lives just one block over in Georgetown, have so far stayed in closer touch than many had assumed the former and perhaps future rivals would. "We talk all the time, and Jack and Emma Claire were over there yesterday afternoon" with Kerry's wife, Teresa, "and came home with half a pound cake." On the subject of how their party should proceed, he says, "Stand up for what we believe in! The last thing we need is strategic maneuvering. I'm going to work in poverty because I care about it"—a point he hit hard in a speech in New Hampshire Saturday night. Asked what lessons could be drawn from the '04 campaign, he says that if others want to spend time mulling them, "they're welcome to do that, but it's not what I'm going to do."

A little of the fire he showed on the stump then comes back as he talks about a woman he met recently in North Carolina, "an African-American woman who had worked years in a wash house and has a little pizza franchise now. There was this guy with her who had helped her get her loan and he said, 'Tell how many people work for you,' and she said, 'There are eight of us.' Not 'seven people work for me,' but 'there are eight of us.' That's the kind of thing I want to make possible. There's an awful lot of good to be done, and that's how we ought to be thinking" about the future—both for his family and for the country.