By Rob Christensen
In Elizabeth Edwards' version of North Carolina's gaudiest political soap opera, she is the scorned woman who urges her husband to drop out of the presidential race when she learns that he had an extramarital affair with a campaign worker.
The truth seems more complicated than the story she tells in her about-to-be released memoir, “Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities.”
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Edwards, who lives outside Chapel Hill, says she became physically ill when her husband, former Sen. John Edwards, told her of his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter, shortly after he announced his second run for the presidency in December 2006 in New Orleans.
“I cried and screamed. I went to the bathroom and threw up,” Edwards writes in her memoir, according to an advance copy obtained by The New York Daily News.
Edwards writes that she wanted her husband to quit the presidential race to protect her family. Later events, she writes, proved her right: “He should have not run.”
But if that was her private counsel, in public she stood by her man. She harbored a secret that could have derailed his chances of winning the White House if he had won the Democratic nomination.
Three months after Edwards declared his candidacy, the Edwardses had the perfect excuse for pulling the plug on it. Elizabeth Edwards announced that her breast cancer had spread and was incurable.
John Edwards said he would continue the campaign only with his wife's permission. But as she told a news conference to announce the progress of her disease in Chapel Hill, her husband at her side: “This is bigger than John Edwards.”
She later explained on CBS' “60 Minutes,” “That would be my legacy wouldn't it. … That I'd taken this fine man from the possibility of giving a great service.”
Few political spouses worry about their legacy, but Elizabeth Edwards is no ordinary political spouse.
Ever since John Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, Elizabeth Edwards has been a full partner in her husband's political career, a relationship not unlike that of Bill and Hillary Clinton. She was heavily involved in his political campaigns and in his Senate office, often to the discomfiture of his staff. Despite a soft-spoken public persona, she can be quick-tempered, strongly opinionated and demanding in private.
(Elizabeth Edwards' account of learning of her husband's infidelities is similar to how Hillary Clinton described her reaction when she found out about her husband's affair. “Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him, ‘What do you mean? What are you saying? Why did you lie to me?'” Clinton wrote in her memoir.)
A public figure
Elizabeth Edwards developed her own national following, particularly among women who identified with her as an articulate spokeswoman, as a mother who experienced the loss of a child, and as someone who struggled with her weight. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she received 65,000 messages of support.
In 2006, she made the television talk show circuit with her best-selling first memoir, “Saving Graces.” In 2007, Time magazine honored her as one of 100 people whose power, talent or moral example was transforming the world.
There were times during the 2008 presidential campaign where Elizabeth Edwards, a former Raleigh lawyer, was a leading voice in the campaign, taking on both Hillary Clinton and Ann Coulter, a conservative commentator.
Elizabeth Edwards first gained fame when her husband was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004. She is far more a public figure than the wives of the Democratic vice presidential candidates who came before and after her, Hadassah Lieberman and Jill Biden.
In writing a second memoir, Edwards is deliberately putting herself back in the spotlight, even though she now faces questions about some of the most difficult moments of their 32-year marriage.
She is scheduled to appear Thursday on Oprah Winfrey's talk show to discuss the book. That is one day before “Resilience” is set to be published by Broadway Books. Edwards has scheduled a book signing at Quail Ridge bookstore in Raleigh on May 16.
Months later, speaking out
The book offers Edwards' first substantive account of her husband's affair since he admitted last summer that he had a tryst with Hunter.
Originally, John Edwards had denied it. But in August, seven months after he withdrew from the presidential race when his campaign failed to gain traction, Edwards admitted the affair on an ABC news program.
The admission came after The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, reported that Edwards had fathered a child with Hunter. Edwards has denied that he is the father. Elizabeth Edwards does not address the paternity question in her book, according to The Daily News.
Elizabeth Edwards writes that Hunter had met Edwards outside a New York hotel and told him, “You are so hot.”
A pro-Edwards political action committee later paid Hunter $114,000 to produce campaign videos that showed Edwards during informal moments on the campaign trail. One of Edwards' leading campaign money raisers, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, later acknowledged helping Hunter resettle in California.
There is some score-settling in the memoir.
Although she never actually uses Hunter's name, Elizabeth Edwards calls her “pathetic.”
She writes that when Edwards told her of the affair, he initially said he had only slipped once, hiding the extent of the relationship. The initial confession “left most of the truth out,” Elizabeth Edwards writes.
She expresses forgiveness for her husband and the father of their four children.
“I lie in bed, circles under my eyes, my sparse hair sticking in too many directions, and he looks at me as if I am the most beautiful woman he has ever seen,” she writes. “It matters.”