At first blush, appearing at the side of a senator husband who borders on glamorous, Elizabeth Edwards seems positively ordinary.
A sleep-deprived but cheerful mom to two small children, she carries a notebook of lyrics for family singalongs; loves to shop the Internet; can chat knowledgeably about the merits of “Teletubbies” vs. “Blue’s Clues” or Weight Watchers vs. the South Beach Diet.
Yet Edwards, 55, has led an extraordinary life.
She grew up hopscotching between the United States and Japan, studied the Romantic poets, excelled in law school in an era when few women were admitted. She juggled a successful legal career and family for 19 years. Then — stunned by a terrible loss — she quit work to have more children at an age when many contemporaries were easing toward grandmotherhood.
Along the way, she advised and aided husband John Edwards as he sailed through multimillion-dollar lawsuits to the Senate to presidential ambitions.
“We’ve always talked about things that we’ve been doing,” she said in an interview, whether courtroom strategies or campaign advertising. “We’ve always been each other’s intellectual equals.”
Now, as the wife of the No. 2 man on the Democratic ticket, her down-to-earth appeal and focus on substance over style are a valuable asset for a candidate some opponents dismiss as a handsome lightweight.
Edwards dubbed herself the “anti-Barbie,” suggesting her husband is no mere Ken doll, either.
Friends from law school
They met in law school. Elizabeth Anania, the daughter of a Navy pilot, had lived in a dozen different Japanese and American cities by the time she was 18. She intended to teach, and pursued a doctorate in English literature at the University of North Carolina. But a tight job market persuaded her to switch to the law school.
There she stood out as worldly, witty and wise for her years, former classmates say.
“She was an absolutely stunning, attractive person, but her real beauty was she was just brilliant,” said longtime family friend David Kirby.
John Edwards was just one among a school brimming with young men from small Carolina towns. “I was not actually attracted to him,” she recalls bluntly.
When she finally relented to a date, he took her dancing to a loud band at a Holiday Inn. She was unimpressed — until he gave her a gentlemanly goodnight kiss on the forehead.
Goodnight groping was more common in 1975.
“I thought, that was awfully sweet,” said Edwards. Gradually it dawned on her that this determined, family oriented, ever-optimistic young man was a real catch.
They were married the Saturday after she passed the bar exam in 1977.
The Edwardses became an ’80s power couple in North Carolina. She worked in the state attorney general’s office, then practiced bankruptcy law. As his law career took off, Edwards limited her hours to make time for children Wade and Catharine and the PTA, soccer practice and assorted mom duties.
That seems like another lifetime now. Those days were swept away without warning in April 1996, when 16-year-old Wade died in an automobile accident.
Edwards has described the loss of her son as an “A.D./B.C. moment” — a pivotal point, by which everything else is dated and defined.
In her grief, she stopped working, stopped doing much of anything. Even watching TV was too painful. “When you lose a child, life sort of stops for a bit,” she said.
She found some solace in founding an after-school computer lab at Wade’s high school, where she volunteered every day.
Edwards never returned to lawyering. Instead, she began hormone treatments in hopes of conceiving more children. The couple felt that would be the best way to bring joy back into their home, for themselves and grieving daughter Cate.
By the time her husband waged his Senate campaign, Edwards was expecting Emma Claire, now 6 years old. She was 50 when she gave birth to Jack, now 4. Cate, 22, graduated from Princeton this year with a degree in political economics.
A family project
Between pregnancy and newborn care, Edwards couldn’t get out much for that 1998 race. But from the start of primary season, the presidential campaign has been a family project.
Edwards speaks up for her husband when he can’t be at meetings and keeps an eye on scheduling to ensure there will be family time. All three children make campaign appearances.
“People will always say to me, isn’t this hard on you and hard on your family? And it’s not really,” she said. “We’re a strong family.”