An increasingly frequent complaint about presidential campaigns is that they are too heavily scripted and too controlled by political consultants who construct messages that are confined to carefully recited talking points articulated identically by candidates and spin doctors alike. So when something completely unanticipated happens, something that is unprecedented and can't be scripted, something that for once reveals the humanity of the process, we don't know how to deal with it.
So it was with the revelations last week by former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and his wife Elizabeth that her cancer had returned and progressed to stage IV. It is treatable but not curable.
Despite this devastating disclosure and Elizabeth's uncertain life expectancy, John and Elizabeth Edwards vowed to proceed with his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Mrs. Edwards emphatically said that her goal was to make the next week no different than the last week, before they had received the bad news.
As tragic as this is, it is also happening in the midst of a highly competitive political campaign, and tasteful or not, the handicapping began almost immediately. The question on many lips was and continues to be: "What does this mean to Edwards and his campaign?" The debate ensued with two distinct lines of reasoning emerging.
The first is that this profoundly sad incident would not just create an enormous amount of sympathy for Edwards and his family, but would boost his chances of breaking out of the pack behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. Just as important, it would also make him a "more real," more three-dimensional candidate, and perhaps ease the criticism that he is "too perfect" or almost plastic in his appearance.
Many cancer survivors and their families argue passionately that the bravery exhibited by both Elizabeth Edwards and her husband and their decision not to terminate or even suspend his campaign should be an important inspiration and model for others facing the dreadful disease, by emphasizing the importance of not becoming a hostage to it and not allowing it to change the lives of patients and their families until it is absolutely unavoidable.
They often add that it is totally inappropriate for others who have not been in similar situations to judge the Edwards family and their decision.
The alternative point of view is that this event is so unprecedented that there are no appropriate reference points or guides to tell us what the Edwardses' revelations will mean for the campaign. We just have to wait and see.
If I had to guess whether this tragic series of developments will help Edwards' candidacy or whether its effects are just totally unpredictable, put me down in the latter column. I don't know. But in reading many of the analyses over the last few days and watching much of the commentary on both broadcast and cable news shows, there seemed to be one important element going virtually ignored.
With the notable exception of Katie Couric's interview with the Edwards family on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday night, the overlooked aspect of this national conversation is that in addition to a grown daughter, the Edwardses have a son and daughter, ages six and eight. Overwhelmingly, this national conversation has been conducted as if they either had no children or their kids were grown and not relevant to the discussion.
The children were a familiar presence on the presidential campaign trail in 2004, but have not been visible in this race, likely only because they have now reached school age. Based on medical statistics, these two children might lose their mother well before they reach adulthood.
The argument that the personal strength and resolve of John and Elizabeth Edwards will work to his benefit in this campaign seems to ignore the likelihood that sooner or later, voters will begin thinking of the implications of the decision to proceed with the campaign for their children. In the background of all this is the death of the Edwardses' 16-year-old son Wade in a 1996 car accident. Edwards went on to run for the Senate and win in 1998.
Their father will be largely gone from their lives for at least another year and their mother will be dividing her time between them, with what is almost certain to be a debilitating cancer therapy, and the campaign trail.
In short, the family will not be together during a very critical period. This is not an attempt to judge the decision that they have made; it is unquestionably theirs to make and their bravery and personal strength through this time is an inspiration to everyone. Instead, it is an attempt to question the call by some that this will become an asset, albeit a tragic one, that could boost Edwards' candidacy. In the end, it is doubtful that this will be how voters see this development.