Elizabeth Edwards, 1949–2010

by Liz Colville

Elizabeth Edwards, a lawyer, author, and the wife of former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, died Tuesday morning of breast cancer. She was 61. On Monday, Edwards posted a message to friends on Facebook announcing that the cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2004, had spread to her liver, three years after announcing, in the midst of her husband’s second bid for the presidency, that the cancer had spread to her bones and lungs.

Edwards’ story is one of the more tragic in modern politics, but also, thanks in no part to her husband, one of the more inspirational. It was her husband who was the politician, but Edwards pulled much of the weight. During his campaigns she acted as a self-described “anti-Barbie” who opened up to the public about her struggle with cancer (and, eventually, about her husband’s extramarital affair), and was an instrumental adviser and organizing force on the campaign trail.

Edwards found out about her husband’s affair with videographer Rielle Hunter, with whom he also had a child, about a year and a half before he finally confessed to the affair on national television. Having told her the affair was only a one-night stand, Edwards later learned that it very much wasn’t, and revealed in her second book that after learning the extent of it, she had advised him to quit the presidential race. When he refused, she agreed to protect his reputation and keep the affair secret. The couple finally separated in early 2010, but they never divorced.

Writing and talking so candidly about her life, which included not only her husband’s philandering, but the staggering trauma of losing her first child, Wade, in a car accident when he was a junior in high school, Edwards opened herself up to become a mentor to millions of people she never met, in particular people living with cancer. We know an alarming amount about this woman because she wanted us to — even her Facebook message to friends was published across the media on Monday. But it only ever became too much because it was inextricably tied to the mired and clichéd political career she supported for so long. Too long, you might say, especially now.

Photo via Crown Publishing Group