Frank Rich Hits Media Coverage of Elizabeth Edwards — and Her Husband

By: E&P Staff

In his Sunday column for The New York Times, Frank Rich criticizes the media response to Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer reports and her husband’s decision, made with her, to continue his race for president.

Polls, he points out, showed that the public backed Sen. John Edwards’ plan to stay on the campaign trail. But he relates, “For all the lip service Washington pays to valuing political players who are authentic and truthful, it turns out that real, honest-to-God straight talk about matters of life, death and, yes, political ambition, drives ‘some people’ (to use Katie Couric?s locution) nuts.”

Rush Limbaugh “ridiculed the Edwardses for dedicating themselves to their campaign instead of, as he would have it, ‘to God.’ No less ludicrous were those pundits who presumed to bestow their own wisdom upon the Edwards household as it confronted terminal illness.”

The column, found behind the pay wall at www.nytimes.com, continues as follows.
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A Washington correspondent for Time (a man) fretted that ?Edwards?s supporters, and surely many average Americans? will be wondering when his ?duties as a husband and a father? will ?trump his duty to his country and the cause of winning the White House.? (Oh those benighted ?average? Americans!) A former Los Angeles Times reporter (a woman) who covered the 2004 Edwards campaign suggested to USA Today that ?this is a time when they would want to be home together savoring every moment that they?ve got.? A Washington Post columnist, identifying herself as a fellow mother, faulted Mrs. Edwards for not being sufficiently protective of her children.

As Mrs. Edwards moves forward both to manage her cancer and to campaign for her husband, she?ll roil more of the Beltway crowd. In a political culture where nearly every act by every candidate and spouse is packaged to a fare-thee-well for the voters? consumption, the Edwardses? story by definition will play out unpredictably in real time, with a spontaneity that is beyond any consultant?s or media guru?s control. Here is one continuing familial crisis that cannot be scored with soothing music to serve as a Hallmark homily in an inspirational infomercial at the next election-year convention. The Edwardses? unscripted human drama will be a novelty by the standards of our excessively stage-managed political theater and baffling to many in its permanent repertory company.

That?s one reason it will be good for the country if Mr. Edwards can stay in this race for the duration, whether you believe he merits being president or not. (For me, the jury on that question is out.) The more Elizabeth Edwards is in the spotlight, the more everyone else in the arena will have to be judged against her. Next to her stark humanity, the slick playacting that passes for being ?human? and ?folksy? in a campaign is tinny. Though much has been said about how she is a model to others battling cancer, she is also a model (or should be) of personal transparency to everyone else in the presidential race….

The power of Elizabeth Edwards?s persona is such that the husband at her side will be challenged to measure up to her, too, perhaps even more so than his opponents….

Whatever Mr. Edwards?s flaws as a candidate turn out to be, he is not guilty of the most persistent charge leveled since his wife?s diagnosis. As Ms. Couric phrased it, ?Even those who may be very empathetic to what you all are facing might question your ability to run the country at the same time you?re dealing with a major health crisis in your family.?

Would it be better if he instead ran the country at the same time he was clearing brush on a ranch? Polio informed rather than crippled the leadership of F.D.R.; Lincoln endured the sickness and death of a beloved 11-year-old son during the Civil War. In the wake of our congenitally insulated incumbent, who has given our troops neither proper armor nor medical care and tried to hide their coffins off camera, surely it can only be a blessing to have a president, whether Mr. Edwards or someone else, who knows intimately what it means to cope daily with the threat of mortality. It?s hard to imagine such a president smiting stem-cell research or skipping the funerals of the fallen.

Indeed, of all the reasons to applaud Elizabeth Edwards?s decision to stay in politics, the most important may be her insistence, by her very action, that we not compartmentalize the harsh reality of death and the imperatives of public policy, both at home and at war. Let the real conversation begin.

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