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Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster

Illustration by Nathan Fox  

Even before the cancer, she was among her husband’s greatest political assets. In one focus group conducted by Hickman in Edwards’s Senate race, voters trashed him as a pretty-boy shyster—until they saw pictures of Elizabeth, four years his senior. “I like that he’s got a fat wife,” one woman said. “I thought he’d be married to a Barbie or a cheerleader.”

The Edwardses’ eldest son, Wade, had been killed in a car crash in 1996; for a long time, Elizabeth went to his grave site every day and read softly to the tombstone. The combination of her suffering, resilience, and imperfections made her a poignant figure. But it was the illness that elevated Elizabeth to a higher plane. She confronted her treatment with bracing courage and wry humor, emerging as one of the most outspoken and widely admired cancer survivors in history.

No one in the Edwardses’ political circle felt anything less than complete sympathy for Elizabeth’s plight. And yet the romance between her and the electorate struck them as ironic nonetheless—because their own relationships with her were so unpleasant that they felt like battered spouses. The nearly universal assessment among them was that there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing.

With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive. At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know that she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. She called her spouse a “hick” in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks. One time, when a friend asked if John had read a certain book, Elizabeth burst out laughing. “Oh, he doesn’t read books,” she said. “I’m the one who reads books.”

During the 2004 race, Elizabeth badgered and berated John’s advisers around the clock. She called Nick Baldick, his campaign manager, an idiot. She accused David Axelrod, his (and later Obama’s) media consultant, of lying to her and insisted that he be stripped of the responsibility for making the campaign’s TV ads. She would stay up late scouring the Web, pulling down negative stories and blog items about her husband, forwarding them with vicious messages to the communications team. She routinely unleashed profanity-laced tirades on conference calls. “Why the fuck do you think I’d want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?” she snarled at the schedulers.

Elizabeth’s illness seemed at first to mellow her in the early months of 2005—but not for long. One day, she was on a conference call with the staffers of One America, the political-action committee that was being turned into a vehicle for John’s 2008 bid. There were 40 or 50 people on the line, mostly kids in their twenties being paid next to nothing (and in some cases literally nothing). Elizabeth had been cranky throughout the call, but at the end she asked if her and her husband’s personal health-care coverage had been arranged. Not yet, she was told. There are complications; let’s discuss it after the call. Elizabeth was having none of that. She flew into a rage.

If this isn’t dealt with by tomorrow, everyone’s health care at the PAC will be cut off until it’s fixed, she barked. I don’t care if nobody has health care until John and I do!

The health-care call attained wide infamy in the Edwards camp. The people around them marveled at Elizabeth’s callousness—this from a woman whose family had multiple houses and a net worth in the tens of millions. Yet no one called her out on her behavior, least of all her husband. His default reflex was to mollify her—or avoid her. No one doubted that, as her condition improved, the increase in John’s travel had a lot to do with steering clear of his wife. What they didn’t know was that the road would soon hold other enticements, too.

“Get ready to get mic’d up,” Edwards announced to Brumberger one day in June 2006 as the campaign was beginning in earnest. We’re gonna have a camera operator and a documentarian traveling with us, Edwards said. We’re gonna show the world what it’s really like to be John Edwards.

Brumberger was stunned to learn that the filmmaker was Hunter. The idea was that she would produce a series of Web videos documenting life on the trail with Edwards. Edwards told Baldick, now running his PAC, that he liked the concept, that they should do it. Baldick objected for any number of reasons—but not because he had the slightest worry that Edwards was fooling around with Hunter. That was one thing the people in Edwards’s orbit never stressed over when it came to John, who they believed had long ago made the decision not to fall into that trap. And, anyway, he had always seemed … well, sorta asexual, at least to his staff.