In an instant, a world in which everything seemed right suddenly seemed all wrong. John and Elizabeth Edwards’s 16-year-old son, Wade, their first-born, was dead, with nothing to blame but the gust of wind that had flipped his car off a wide-open road.
As the couple walked down the aisle of the church for his funeral, they braced each other, friends recalled, as if they could not stand alone.
In the bleak months that followed, the Edwardses looked for ways to keep Wade’s name alive, taking comfort even in seeing it printed on credit-card offers that arrived in the mail. Determined to honor their son publicly and fill their life with meaning, they created a learning center named after him. They chose to have more children. And they decided Mr. Edwards would enter politics, a path that took him first to the United States Senate and now to his second run for the presidency.
The campaign is a shared mission. Elizabeth Edwards is her husband’s most trusted adviser, his chief provocateur and his most popular surrogate, mobbed at campaign stops by people who admire her struggle against breast cancer and share stories of children lost. She describes the presidency as not just his quest, but hers, too.
Her visibility and their decision to continue with the campaign despite learning in March that her cancer was incurable has put the Edwardses’ marriage on display like no other in this presidential race. From afar, Americans have wondered at their bond or questioned their values, cheered them on or condemned them. Some people assumed they were in denial, others accused them of an ambition that knew no bounds.
But to the Edwardses, their decision simply showed a sense of purpose and a lesson learned a decade ago from crushing pain: If you can’t control life, you can at least embrace it more urgently.
“We’ve been through the worst a couple can go through,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview. “So long as there’s something you can do that’s positive, there’s a chance. As long as there’s a chance, there’s something to hold on to.”
The desire, even the need, to push forward has come to define them. “Every married couple has a history, but they have the force of this gigantic history,” said Glenn Bergenfield, a friend since law school. “They’re both fighter pilots. You keep going. The important thing is the mission, the important thing is to keep going.”
When opposites attract
Arriving at the University of North Carolina law school in 1974, Johnny Edwards had all the upbeat confidence of a small-town football star. But he had working-class roots and had barely spent time in any city, and he was intimidated by his more worldly classmates — none more so than Elizabeth Anania, who sat a few rows in front of him in their civil-procedure class. She had “the blackest hair and fine light blue eyes,” he later wrote in his memoir.
Four years his senior, Ms. Anania was the daughter of a Navy pilot and had lived all over the United States and in Japan. Friends described the dinner table at the Anania household as the kind of intellectual forum where you learned to speak up or keep your head down. Moving every year or so had taught her to adapt fast.
“She was like the mayor of our little town,” Mr. Bergenfield recalled, organizing sports teams, fixing up couples, making friends for those too shy to do it themselves. “She was dazzling, beautiful and unafraid in class.”
She thought she had nothing in common with Mr. Edwards — “we listened to different music, we read different books,” she said. Still, Mr. Bergenfield recalled, “there was something in her mind about him. He was a little puzzling to her.”
Dancing at Holiday Inn
For their first date, Mr. Edwards took her dancing at a local Holiday Inn — not, to her, a promising start. But his good-night kiss to her forehead touched her with its tenderness and restraint. She never dated anyone else again.
Thirty years after their wedding, they still have different tastes: she’s more poetry, he’s more Grisham, she’s more C-Span, he’s more ESPN. When a cable movie channel asked politicians to talk about their favorite movies in 2004, it was her idea to say “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear holocaust, though Mr. Edwards had not seen it. But they complement one another: she obsesses over details, he sees the broad themes. He rallies a crowd, she learns the name of everyone in it.
And Mrs. Edwards, now 58, is her husband’s fiercest defender. An insomniac, she reads blogs and articles assiduously to see what people are saying about him, posting her rebuttals in the early morning hours. In campaign appearances this fall, she was still taking exception to a largely flattering profile of Mr. Edwards — headlined “The Accidental Populist” — that ran in The New Republic in January.
She plays bad cop to his good if she thinks the people working for him are not serving his best interests. His Senate staff joked that if he hated you but she loved you, you were fine, but if she hated you, no amount of love from the boss would be enough.
Mrs. Edwards plays down her role: “Somebody’s wife,” she calls herself in campaign appearances. But her popularity, and the reluctance of rival campaigns to respond to her comments because of her disease, has allowed her to say things that her husband — or any candidate — could not. Frustrated with the overwhelming news media interest in two Democratic rivals, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, she told one interviewer, “We can’t make John black, we can’t make him a woman.”
She was quoted at a luncheon sponsored by Ladies’ Home Journal saying that her choice to spend time with her children rather than practice law had made her happier than Mrs. Clinton — “I’m more joyful than she is” — then later criticized Mrs. Clinton for not being a vocal enough advocate for women.
Mr. Edwards says his wife cuts through “the fluff” in politics. “I trust her more than I trust anybody in the world,” he said. “She’s herself, and fearless. I don’t think she’s intimidated by or afraid of anything.”
For her part, Mrs. Edwards says that watching her husband as a candidate takes her back to their earliest days together: “It does sometimes remind me of when I first saw him, first listened to him talk about possibilities, and how completely charmed I was by his story and by his optimism.”
While she can be mercurial, he is grounding. “John brings a steadiness and a calm and a strength,” said Gwynn Winstead, a friend and neighbor who led the bereavement group the Edwardses attended after their son’s death. “And I don’t mean Elizabeth doesn’t have those things, but he gives them to her.”
He has immersed himself in the details of her medical care, much as he used to master the manuals of medical instruments that were at issue in his malpractice cases. Jennifer M. Palmieri, a former campaign adviser who is close to Mrs. Edwards, recalled accompanying her to a recent doctor’s appointment when her husband could not attend. As Mr. Edwards, on speakerphone, quizzed the doctor and then summed up the conclusions, Mrs. Edwards turned to Ms. Palmieri and said, “Now do you see why I don’t worry?”
A dark day: April 4, 1996
Politics did not interest the two young lawyers at the start of their careers. Mr. Edwards did not even vote in some elections, and they had intended to raise children and make a good living practicing law.
They embraced parenthood with near professionalism. They held weekly meetings with Wade and Cate, two years younger. Every year they invited hundreds of friends to a Christmas party at their house in Raleigh, with Mrs. Edwards cooking and dozens of children playing upstairs.
Mr. Edwards coached soccer, and his wife assisted, making sure every player had enough time on the field. She arranged her schedule as a bankruptcy lawyer to spend more time with her children in the afternoons. She sewed Halloween costumes for them and their friends.
Everything changed on April 4, 1996.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards and Cate were packing to spend Easter at their beach house on the North Carolina shore. Wade, a high school junior, had driven ahead with some friends. When Mrs. Edwards saw the trooper at the door, she knew instantly something was wrong.
“Tell me he’s alive,” she pleaded. But her son was dead.
His Jeep Grand Cherokee had fishtailed, then flipped, on a wind-whipped stretch of Interstate 40. He had not been drinking or speeding, and had been wearing a seat belt. The crash killed him instantly. The boy in the car with him escaped with minor injuries.
Wade was an honor student and an athlete, recalled as the boy other parents relied on to drive their children home from parties, the kid who left the popular table to eat lunch with someone sitting alone. And in the quiet after the funeral, his parents despaired.
Mrs. Edwards collapsed in a grocery aisle at the sight of his favorite soda, so her friends took over shopping for a while. Mr. Edwards stopped running because all his routes passed places that reminded him of Wade; friends finally found a forest where father and son had never gone. Both stopped working, and Cate pushed two chairs together in her parents’ bedroom and slept there for two years, until she was 16.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards grieved in different ways. She read the books on Wade’s senior year reading list aloud at his grave. She spent sleepless hours in online bereavement groups, seeking and offering solace. Feeling overwhelmed at restaurants, she would retreat to the restroom to run her fingers over a photograph of her boy. When she met strangers, she would tell them about him.
Mr. Edwards was quieter, friends recalled. The accident had shaken his guiding belief that if you worked hard and did things right, everything would work out. Such faith did not account for the unexpected death of a child.
Many marriages do not endure such a loss, but their ordeal drew the Edwardses closer.
“I often say two wet noodles can’t hold each other up, but John and Elizabeth were really able to grieve very personally and yet together,” Ms. Winstead said. “While each of them struggled, I don’t think their relationship ever struggled.”
Mr. Edwards said, “We clung to each other, and we got through it together.”
And together, they pushed forward, as they described it, “to parent Wade’s memory.”
They began planning a computer lab next to Wade’s high school. It seemed a fitting tribute; Wade had thought it unfair that many students did not have computers, when teachers gave extra points for papers that were typed instead of handwritten. Six months later — after hiring staff members, raising money and buying and renovating a building — the Wade Edwards Learning Lab opened.
Mr. Edwards went back to work. And, after asking Cate’s blessing to have more children, Mrs. Edwards, then 46, began giving herself hormone shots. The birth of Emma Claire Edwards, almost exactly two years after Wade’s death, would be a turning point. “That was really good for my parents, to be able to have love for another child again,” Cate said.
Mr. Edwards had just won the Democratic primary for the Senate. A few weeks before Wade’s death, the boy and his parents went to Washington because he had won a Voice of America essay contest. They had been given a tour of the White House by Mrs. Clinton and had met Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican. Wade had remarked how good his father would be as a senator.
Friends say Mr. Edwards probably would have gone into politics even if Wade had lived. But his death provided a catalyst.
“When Wade died, I think John examined life and came to the conclusion that he wanted to try to paint with a broader brush and try to change the world not one family at a time, not one person at a time, but in bigger ways that would have more permanent and lasting effects,” said David Kirby, Mr. Edwards’s former law partner. “He sees what he does in his political career as a way to honor his son.”
An open-door outlook
While some political families try to erect barriers between their personal and public lives, the Edwardses have actively torn them down. Mr. Edwards’s Senate staff learned a cardinal rule at the couple’s house: don’t knock, just come right in. “We don’t fight, we don’t walk around naked,” Mrs. Edwards explained to one staff member. “You don’t have to worry about walking in on something.”
When Mrs. Edwards learned that her cancer had returned and was treatable but not curable, she panicked, she wrote in her memoir, “at the thought that this cancer might take him out of the race.” She recalled turning to her husband and saying, “I want to see the children, and I want you to continue the campaign.”
Dealing simultaneously with cancer, two young children (the Edwardses have taken Emma Claire, 9, and Jack, 7, on the campaign trail and are home schooling them) and a presidential candidacy could strain many marriages. But friends and relatives say the couple seem determined to go on, no matter how demanding it can be.
Ms. Palmieri, who traveled with Mrs. Edwards the week after the announcement in March, said, “The first few days, it was, we’re going to go out and fight this every day. The fifth day, it’s we have to go out and fight this every day. It’s a hard place to live when you feel the pressure to live every day to the fullest.”
This fall, an NPR interviewer asked whether Mr. Edwards would be able to focus on the presidency if his wife’s illness took a turn for the worse. “If,” Mrs. Edwards interrupted, then recalled how Mr. Edwards had responded after Wade died. “He didn’t pull the covers over his head,” she said. “He can do more than one thing at one time, even when one of the things is incredibly devastating.”
In past campaigns, Mr. Edwards declined to talk about Wade, not wanting to appear to be exploiting his son’s death for political gain. Now, toughness in tragedy has become a central theme of his candidacy. An Edwards campaign television advertisement called “30 Years” featured Mrs. Edwards speaking into the camera about her husband’s strength: “It’s unbelievably important that in our president we have someone who can stare the worst in the face, and not blink.”
Mrs. Edwards’s illness has given the campaign more purpose, friends say. “I don’t think he’s running for Elizabeth, but it’s just, you have more urgency, a little more drive,” Mr. Kirby said.
The couple was taken aback by the criticism that followed their announcement that he would stay in the race. “Maybe It’s Time for Candidate to Be a Husband,” scolded one headline. Said another: “Don’t Do It, John Edwards.”
But the Edwardses say there was never really much question about what they would do. Their son’s death had taught them that they could control only a limited number of things in life, Mrs. Edwards said. “It made it harder for people on the outside to understand, but we didn’t have to walk through the same fire.”
In the hospital room after her diagnosis, Mr. Edwards had asked his wife to marry him again. They renewed their bond on July 30, their 30th anniversary, standing in their backyard before a small group of friends and relatives.
They wrote their own vows, describing what they meant to each other, how fused their lives had become. As Mr. Edwards started to speak his, he had to stop, overwhelmed with emotion. He paused for a long time, never taking his eyes off his wife.