The ways in which Elizabeth Edwards stunned me are mostly selfish. I was stunned by my own interest in her, stunned again and again by how fascinating I found the trashy, sordid mess that her husband made of their lives. I was stunned, last year, to find myself poring over things written by her and about her, detailing parts of a marriage that no one should know but its participants. I was fascinated. It felt dirty, but I was.
Why this fascination? I was never a John Edwards supporter. He was too slick, his politics too Southern-rooted, his smile too glib, his experience too light. His "Two Americas" speech was nice, but nice words need substance behind them, and he never seemed substantial. The one time I saw them both speak, she was less memorable than he was. They were cardboard-cut-out platitudes, touring the country (at that time) in support of an overly square candidate who couldn't beat George W. Bush a second time.
Yet something in the failures of 2008 humanized the Edwardses and, along the way, shocked me into paying attention. Elizabeth Edwards, once the poster woman for marital bliss and having-it-all, became the Dark Side of Celebrity warning almost overnight.
Nothing about John Edwards having an affair was stunning. What was was the reaction -- the public spectacle of it all. What was stunning was Mrs. Edwards's successes and failures at managing the story surrounding Mr. Edwards's implosion. It was shocking to see her still on TV when no one even wanted a remote interview with him. She should have been, at the pinnacle of her political influence, Todd Palin without the TV show. Yet there she was on Oprah. There she was on "The Today Show." There she was testifying before Congress and working with the President on Health Care.
Elizabeth Edwards stunned me because she mattered. Her success at capturing hearts, if not minds, showed me my own blind spots. I find the trashy details of politicians' lives entertaining -- like a peek behind the curtain at the circus. Others find the struggles and inspirational. A woman who can overcome such challenges -- the death of a child, two very late-in-life pregnancies, an unfaithful husband, the loss of a giant personal dream, and the certain, creeping knowledge that one's time will be so terribly short -- and carry on, and on, and on... well, yes. That's inspirational.
Elizabeth Edwards reminded me that even people with extraordinary means and extraordinary advantages can have struggles. They, too, can be stunned and ill-treated by life. They, too, suffer, and sometimes they suffer very publicly, for a very long time. That's a cruel fate for anyone, and it seems worse for someone who genuinely wanted, for so long, to do such good.
Tonight, I am stunned by her death. Rest in peace, Mrs. Edwards.