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Good Grief

What might the saving graces of Elizabeth Edwards be?

By 1.24.07

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This review is taken from the December 2006/January 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.

Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength From Friends and Strangers
by Elizabeth Edwards
(Broadway Books, 340 pages, $24.95)

YOU REMEMBER ELIZABETH EDWARDS. She ran for Second Lady in 2004 and may run for First Lady in 2008 if her husband, former Sen. John Edwards, is nominated by the Democrats. Whether or not he becomes president is purely academic because Elizabeth has what it takes to become America's First Lady on her own. She doesn't need the White House; her memoir of bereavement and invalidism pulsates with so much lugubrious hysteria that she's a shoo-in to become the Great White Oprah.

She had the best possible training for political wifehood. She was a Navy brat, accustomed to moving here and there and everywhere, meeting loads of people, and then moving again and meeting loads more. Her girlhood was dominated by the dreaded "Fitness Report," which all officers get when they come up for promotion. The conduct of a man's family could make or break him. "Everything we did was watched and recorded," she writes; "nobody talked about it, but everyone knew it. We all had as our first allegiance the professional reputations of our fathers." A wife who drank, or a pregnant daughter "meant a ruined career, a shortened tour of duty, a life spoiled by an indiscretion."

She met John Edwards while they were both law students at the University of North Carolina and married him in 1977 when she was 28 and he was 24. Settling down in Raleigh, they had two children, Wade born in 1980 and Cate in 1982. In 1996, while en route to meet up with his parents at their beach house, Wade was killed in a weather-related auto accident and Elizabeth fell apart.

Her morbid excesses began with the sign she posted on the door of her son's room ordering the cleaning woman not to vacuum or change the sheets: "I wanted the room to smell like Wade as long as it would." The wake had hardly begun before her brother came with a video camera and interviewed the assembled neighbors and classmates about the dead boy. For months afterwards, TV and music were banned from the Edwards home as they gathered with friends each evening in the dark, quiet family room to talk about Wade.

It sounds as if all of Raleigh was involved in the grieving process, including perfect strangers that Elizabeth drafted into service: "If, in a restaurant, I felt Wade about to overtake me, I would go to the restroom and take out his picture. If someone, anyone, was there, I showed them the picture and told them about my boy." Sometimes she drew a whole crowd of sympathizers. One day at the supermarket she happened to see a display of Wade's favorite soft drink and fell into what sounds like a fit: "...he came crashing in on me, and I was literally thrown to the floor. I sat sprawled in the soda aisle at the grocery store and cried uncontrollably... flattened by Cherry Coke."

She even roped in the gravediggers, giving the cemetery grounds staff presents on Wade's birthday. She visited his grave every day and read the Bible aloud "to the place on the ground." She also read him the letters that his friends had written about him, and when his SAT scores arrived posthumously she read him those, too. She enjoyed tending his grave because it reminded her of cleaning up his room, but it wasn't enough, so she started tending other graves of children who had died years and decades earlier, talking to them all the while, because they had no mothers to clean for them. One day she washed some dead child's muddy cross.

She went what can only be called berserk the day Wade's grave was violated. The site contained a huge metal angel, and someone had tried unsuccessfully to drag it away. She began screaming and called the police, demanding that they come out and dust the angel for fingerprints. As she waited, it began to rain, so she fetched umbrellas and old quilts from her trunk to cover the angel to preserve the prints. When the police got there, they told her that prints could not be lifted from the statue's surface. She was inconsolable: "He was in my every thought, in my empty arms, in my weary, beaten heart."

He was also in her computer. The only modern touch in this neo-Victorian threnody is the enormous correspondence she conducted with other bereaved parents at various grief.com sites. She is the consummate online junkie who Googles every subject that pops into her head, so this may be where she read up on how to get pregnant at the age of 48.

Mirabile dictu, it worked. She had not only one baby, but two, becoming the Fertility Queen of the 2004 election, the 55-year-old mother of six-year-old Emma Claire and four-year-old Jack. How did she do it?Do not look for the answer in this book. Considering how garrulous she is on the subject of bereavement, I expected an Ovariad on the subject of fertility treatments, but all she says is: "Tests, appointments, procedures, failures. It was not until the week of Wade's eighteenth birthday [January 1998] that the shots and medications and good fortune were translated into a pregnancy."

Then she makes a mistake no lawyer should make, the bane of the witness under cross-examination: qui s'excuse s'accuse. She turns defensive and starts to overexplain: "I speak less of this not because it was unimportant," she avers, but for the sake of those women still undergoing fertility treatments, "women who had tried and failed to get pregnant, or women who had gotten pregnant but were unable to carry the pregnancy to term.... False hope is a bitter poison... I could not encourage it."

She must have Googled her husband's Wikipedia entry that claims she used surrogate mothers for both births. I disregarded this in view of Wikipedia's way with errors, but the Slate article by Suz Redfearn claiming that she used donor eggs is carefully researched and well-reasoned. One thing is certain: the questions are not going to stop. If the Democrats hope to lure voters away from the Religious Right they will insist on knowing if Edwards has any leftover embryonic stem cells in his closet.

Presuming they conceived in the good old-fashioned way, another question arises: How did they manage with their daughter sleeping in their bedroom? When her brother was killed, 14-year-old Cate lapsed into a frightening regressive state and refused to be alone in her room. The author is vague on dates, but she says that Cate slept with them for two years -- the same time span of the two conceptions. Even more intriguing is how John, who was representing the bereaved parents whose daughter was swallowed by a swimming pool drain, managed to get into begetting mode while caught up in the family man's garden of voluptuous delights: coaching soccer, playing Santa Claus, running charities, volunteering at Cate's school, and performing community service. Mentor me, baby. Gimme some P...T...A!

INASMUCH AS ANY PART OF THIS BOOK could be called a fun read, it's the section on Campaign 2004. Elizabeth the outgoing Navy brat was in her element, but continental Teresa Heinz Kerry most definitely was not. It's obvious that the two women couldn't stand each other, and small wonder: they were Mata Hari and Mary Poppins; Garbo and Charo. They also have very different views of children, being Martinet and Permissive; Elizabeth's tortuous assurance that she didn't mind it a bit when Teresa yanked little Jack's thumb out of his mouth is one of the most determinedly agreeable passages ever penned.

Two weeks before the end of the campaign, she found a lump in her breast that turned out to be malignant. Whether it was caused by the massive doses of female hormones she took is not known, and she wouldn't admit it if it were, but some of her passing comments betray a desperate need to convince herself that there is no connection between her fertility treatments and her cancer. What she hates about wearing a lymph-node drain: "the children had to keep more distance than they were used to." Why she created a special outfit for her radiation treatments so she doesn't need to don a lab gown: "the changing time might eat into my get-back-to-the-children time." Her law career: "My main job for years to come will be -- until I am nearly too old for it -- raising children."

She also gives herself away by denying in advance what she doesn't want people to think, thereby planting the forbidden idea in their heads, as when she brings up Pat Conroy's novel, The Great Santini. They're not all like that, she insists. Her father was "as far from Bull Meecham as any military man can be. Oh, sometimes he would wake us up with a bugle -- because he thought it was funny. Sometimes he would 'inspect' our rooms -- but I never remember anything awful happening."

FITNESS REPORT: This book is a maudlin, lachrymose orgy of sentiment by an author who makes Niobe look like Betty Hutton. Recommendation: Bust her father to cabin boy.

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).