R.I.P., Elizabeth Edwards: The almost-neighbor I never met

imageOf course. ”The wrong Edwards ran for president.” Elizabeth Edwards abounded with the positives, especially moral ones, that I found wanting in her husband, who often reminded me of the slick Southern lawyer in the movie version of The Devil’s Advocate.

The real tragedy isn’t just her fatal cancer or John’s infidelity. Rather it’s that so brilliant and eloquent a woman felt compelled to favor her husband’s career over her own despite his abundant failings. Eleanor Roosevelt comes to mind here, except that she and husband were both presidential in talent and judgment. John Edwards wasn’t. Sometimes I liked him from afar—I voted for him in a Democratic presidential primary—and sometimes I did not. I wish I had been more consistently skeptical. But with Elizabeth around to advise him, all too many people made the same mistake.

In Freedom Jonathan Franzen or one of his characters scolds Washingtonians for caring too much about geographical proximity to the powerful, but I can’t resist passing on this little story as simply a study in D.C.-area culture and an indication of my feelings about the Edwardses as I perceived them—both the good and the bad:

Some years ago I was checking my mail, in a D.C. suburb, when I saw an envelope on the same shelf from, of all senders, the office of the Senate chaplain.

Unavoidably I noticed it was addressed to Sen. Edwards. I can also remember seeing, in the basement garage, a family that looked like the Edwardses and may or may not have been them. I kept my distance. Clothing and facial expressions hinted “Funeral,” and I did not want to intrude.

I’d gone to the University of North Carolina where both Edwardses had attended law school, but I decided that the time was wrong to be neighborly, and beyond that, what if I had misidentified them? I’m still not certain about the garage sighting. The property manager—not the present one—steadfastly maintained that she didn’t know of a Senator living here, despite my mention of the envelope.  She was right technically. Not John Edwards but his in-laws, Elizabeth Edwards’ parents, had apparently dwelt on the floor above me. Her father was a Navy flier; it may have been he whom they had buried.  Elizabeth Edwards fondly remembered the times she and John spent with her parents, apparently as near as 40 feet of where I’m typing this, and they passed the condo apartment on to her (I don’t know if her mother is still alive elsewhere although a Wikipedia item lacks a death date). So close, and yet also so far; and here’s another indication.

At the time I saw the chaplain’s mailing, I was campaigning for some consumer-friendly legislation that would have helped schools and libraries and the public at large. John Edwards sat on just the right Senate committee. Oh, how tempted I was just to slip an envelope under the door of the apartment above me! No cash. Just pro-education arguments. Even if John and Elizabeth Edwards were not living there, at least not constantly, perhaps someone else like a tenant, or maybe their grown daughter, would have passed on my envelope. My earlier approaches, through John Edwards’s political staff and his poverty center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had failed. But I did not try the envelope; that’s not how we do things Inside the Beltway.

Still, I’d like to think that if the senator had been Elizabeth, not John, I’d have made an exception, knowing she would be more approachable.

Then again, maybe if she had been truly running her own political career, I would not have needed the envelope-under-the-door in the first place. Compared to John Edwards, her populism was almost surely more genuine despite the comfortable and cosmopolitan life she had lived as the daughter of a Naval officer. R.I.P., Elizabeth. I’m sorry I never had a chance—despite our being sort-of-neighbors—to meet you.

Related (added December 12): New York Times obituary, with both positives and negatives, including a quote from a book saying, via anonymous sourcing, that Elizabeth Edwards wasn’t always the saint portrayed in the media. I am not in a position to evaluate the truthfulness of the charges but will say I wildly approved of the legislative positions and crusades taken by the public Elizabeth in areas such as healthcare. Her side is in a moving memoir published earlier, Saving Graces. From afar, I’ll remember her as a good-hearted woman who at times could get carried away in her enthusiasm to see her beliefs prevail and see John Edwards in the White House.

Update, December 13: Here is a New York Times obit for Vincent Joseph Ariana, Elizabeth Edwards’s father, saying he died in 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, of heart failure. That would have been at least several years after the possible garage sighting.  So if I indeed saw the Edwardses, I’m not sure what occasion would have been.

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David Rothman

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