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Campaign, cancer, courage

Published April 1, 2007


The 2008 presidential marathon is well underway, and there has never been a race like it. It promises to the most expensive in history, and the rush by big states to the front of the primary calender could decide the Democratic and Republican nominations by early February. But what makes this campaign so fascinating are the potential "firsts" that could come out of it.

Will Hillary Clinton become the first woman, not to mention the first former first lady, to be elected president? Will Barack Obama be the first black president? Or Mitt Romney the first Mormon to reach the Oval Office? Or Rudy Giuliani the first three-time married president? Or John McCain the first the first prisoner of war to become commander in chief?

Now revise the campaign script and add another first - one of the great love stories in modern American politics, with John and Elizabeth Edwards bringing heartbreak and hope and courage to the campaign trail after announcing a recurrence of her breast cancer, described by the couple as incurable but treatable.

For the moment at least, it is the most riveting story in presidential politics, taking the spotlight away from the two Democratic superstars in the race, Clinton and Obama. The Edwardses made a decision that was both highly personal and transparently political. They decided the campaign - their campaign - for the White House must go forward with the candidate's sick wife at his side as much as possible, or with him at her side when the need arises, as it almost surely will during her treatment.

Some people may think less of Edwards for not putting aside his White House ambition to be with his wife and two young children. Others have applauded the couple's courage to go forward with their lives - and the campaign - instead of, as Elizabeth Edwards put it, going off to "cower in a corner."

She makes a compelling case for why the campaign must go on, for her sake as much as her husband's. During an interview with Katie Couric, Elizabeth Edwards said she could not live knowing her cancer denied her husband his chance to become president.

"That would be my legacy, wouldn't it, Katie?" she said. "That I'd taken a fine man from the possibility of giving a great service. I mean, I don't want that to be my legacy. Either you push forward with the things that you were doing yesterday or you start dying. That seems to be your only two choices."

Couric has come under fire from some bloggers who think she was out of bounds in raising the question of whether Edwards is putting his political ambitions ahead of his family. Her critics asked why Couric didn't take a leave of absence from her job as co-anchor of the Today show when her husband was dying from colon cancer a few years ago. And will anyone now suggest that Tony Snow should step down as White House spokesman after learning that his colon cancer has returned and spread to his liver?

Like some others, my first reaction was to think less of John Edwards for not at least suspending his presidential campaign. However, I have come to respect their decision, which was for them alone to make, even though I wonder to what extent they considered the best interests of their youngest children.

They are asking for understanding, not pity or sympathy. The couple recognizes that their wealth gives them choices that most Americans don't have. A working person whose spouse is diagnosed with incurable cancer may not have the option of quitting his job to be with his stricken wife, especially when there are mouths to feed and bills to pay. For most people, the decision too often is made for them by their personal and financial circumstances.

Contrary to what Rush Limbaugh and some cynical bloggers have suggested, the Edwardses say they do not want sympathy votes, not a single one, although it's likely some voters will now take a closer look, or a second look, at Edwards and find something they admire or had not seen before.

Regardless of how the Edwards campaign turns out, I believe some good will come from Elizabeth Edwards' brave example. In 1974, first lady Betty Ford publicly discussed her mastectomy, increasing public awareness of breast cancer and giving millions of women the courage to talk about their struggle against this deadly disease.

Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow now have something in common with thousands of other Americans as they fight on. They are about to discover that living with terminal cancer is like looking at a clock that has no hands, as my former colleague Barry Bradley wrote before dying of lung cancer last year. There is no way to tell the time.

[Last modified April 2, 2007, 11:44:05]

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