Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of pariah John Edwards, lost her long battle with cancer last week. The columns and broadcast tributes extolling her courage and character have been ubiquitous. She handled her illness with dignity, and the public revelation of her husband’s betrayal as well as could be expected. As is often the case when a public figure dies, however, the accolades have been excessive: calling Elizabeth Edwards a hero goes too far. When her opportunity for true heroism arrived, she not only rejected it, but chose a course of narrow self-interest that put the nation at risk. We can attribute this to ambition, human frailty, a mother’s warped perspective, or a bad decision under stress, but whatever the cause, her actions were the antithesis of heroism.
The moment occurred shortly after John Edwards announced his campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. By her own account, Elizabeth Edwards learned then that her husband had lied about rumors of an affair with Rielle Hunter, and that he had, in fact, cheated on his supposedly beloved wife as she battled cancer. More than that, she learned (though it is likely that she already knew this) that the man who was basing his sales pitch to the American people on integrity, honesty, and caring was a liar, a phony and a fraud. At this point, the courageous, heroic, and responsible thing to do would have been to tell John Edwards that his campaign was over, and that if he persisted in trying to win the presidency under false pretenses, she would reveal his betrayal of her to the public. Instead, she continued to campaign for her husband, working to place a demonstrably untrustworthy cur in the White House, and also risking handing the election to the spectacularly undeserving Republicans while crippling the Democratic Party, should her husband win the nomination and subsequently have his affair discovered. As Jonathan Alter wrote, incredibly enough, in an article praising Elizabeth Edwards, “Their decision to move forward anyway—a product of her fierce ambition as much as his own—was selfish and unfair to the millions of people committed to electing a Democratic president.”
That’s too mild, but that’s right: selfish and unfair. Not “heroic.” Not by a long-shot.
Indeed, Elizabeth Edwards’ decidedly unheroic conduct could have been a catastrophe for her country. There is nothing wrong with remembering her fondly for other reasons, and celebrating the best moments of her often tragic life. As she wrote on her Facebook page shortly before her death, “There are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human.”
Yes, it is. But is sure isn’t called heroism.