I’ve been reading the reaction to the story I wrote yesterday for Time.com about John and Elizabeth Edwards’ announcement. Ana’s most recent post is particularly compelling. And many Swampland commenters have written very thoughtful responses and raised a lot of interesting and important questions. This is a thorny, difficult topic that mixes politics, medicine and parenting all into one. I want to make sure that readers understand that by expressing surprise at the decision John and Elizabeth Edwards made to stay in the race, I am not saying that what they’re doing is obviously or categorically the wrong thing. In fact, I take them at their word that this is the right decision for them and their family. But I don’t think it’s inappropriate or unfair (or remotely politically biased) to say that I feel discomfited by the decision and the rationale behind it, or to make the fairly simple point that some Democrats out there might feel the same way. I just got off the phone with an as-yet-uncommitted Democratic fundraiser who has already raised money this cycle for Edwards, as well as other candidates. He doesn’t want Edwards to drop out. But he wonders, too, how the recurrence of Elizabeth’s cancer will affect that campaign, and whether some voters might feel uncomfortable with a decision to keep campaigning at all.
Everyone will come at this question from his or her own personal perspective. As the parent of two young children, I know I couldn’t make the same decision that the Edwards made. Then again, I don’t know what it’s like to feel that the country needs me, or my spouse, to be president.
As we know from the reporting about her condition, Elizabeth could live a relatively normal life for many years. Although her cancer has spread from breast to bone, it is not primary bone cancer. And while it is not curable — she will have cancer for the rest of her life — it is treatable. But while the odds Elizabeth faces are not insurmountable, they are sobering. We are all time-limited, and we could all die at any moment. When I board a plane for a business trip, I always suffer from the random fear that my children will never see me again. But I board the plane because the odds are acceptable. I think I would feel quite differently if I knew I had an illness that could substantially shorten my life. It would change the calculus for me, and reduce the number of planes I boarded on business trips. That’s just me, it’s true. But I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that, as they learn about Elizabeth’s recurrence and about her and John’s decision to continue his campaign, parents across the country are going to be asking themselves what they would do in such a situation. Surely how they answer that question will affect how some of them see John Edwards’ presidential aspirations — more favorably for some, less so for others. And while Ana is absolutely right that we in the media need to be careful how we write about this issue, I do not agree that it is somehow wrong or inapproriate to raise questions about it. If it’s legitimate, as a character issue, to debate the significance of the five wives John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have had between them, and whether voters will hold that against them, surely it’s also legitimate to look at the decision by John and Elizabeth Edwards to keep campaigning despite the reemergence of her cancer, and to debate whether it is, or should be, an issue to voters.
One Swampland commenter makes a very interesting point in this regard:
Frankly, a debate about whether or not this course of action makes Edwards a good or bad person is something to which the press has zero value to add.
Lurking in the background, however, is a substantive issue. If Elizabeth Edwards has a high probability of not surviving more than six years, would a future grieving widower with two young children not be an ideal candidate for President? As a father with two young children, I could assure you that my wife passing away would adversely impact my job performance in a much less demanding job. The period of distraction and depression combined with the demands of raising young children as a single parent would likely interfere with Edwards devoting as much time and energy to the Presidency as he would if his wife were healthy.
I can understand their reluctance to abandon the campaign. But, many voters and contributors may rationally conclude that this news makes another candidate more fit to be President in 2008.
I’ve known John and Elizabeth Edwards, as a reporter, since I traveled to Raleigh to write about John’s successful Senate campaign in 1998. There’s no question that the selflessness shown by Elizabeth will be an inspiration to many people — perhaps far more people than those to whom her decision is unsettling. Like many, I am dazzled by her strength and have long admired her. I’ve written about her in the past, and I’ve always thought she was at least as impressive and compelling as her husband. I hope and pray for them both.