NPR

Elizabeth Edwards Succumbs To Cancer

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, died Tuesday. She was 61. (AP)

Elizabeth Edwards -- who catapulted into the public eye in 2004, when her husband, Sen. John Edwards, ran for president and was John Kerry's running mate on the Democratic ticket, has died, a close family friend tells NPR. She was 61.

Over the past few years, Edwards wrote two best-selling books, fought a well-publicized battle against cancer and saw her marriage crumble after her husband fathered a child with another woman.

Even for a public figure, Edwards led an extraordinarily public life. Not only did she do the things most political spouses do -- the fundraisers and the luncheon speeches and the campaign rallies -- but she also allowed the country to share her personal struggles. She wrote candidly about the death of her teenage son. She spoke openly about having cancer -- even holding a news conference with her doctor to announce her diagnosis. And after her husband confessed to an affair, she went on the talk-show circuit, explaining in a 2009 NPR interview that she hoped to help others by talking about her pain.

"One of the reasons that I sort of tried to share that with people is I wanted maybe to open the eyes of people who haven't been through the experience and maybe feel tempted to say, 'This is what you're doing to the person you love,' " she said. " 'This is the private hell you’re going to send them into if they do discover the ways in which you have betrayed them.' "

Edwards' candor won her both admirers and detractors, as she became more popular than her husband. It was perhaps an unlikely destiny for a woman who had a middle-class upbringing and lived her first 50 years relatively quietly as a lawyer, homemaker and mother.

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you've lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that's good.
Elizabeth Edwards

"She has lived a life that many women can identify with," said Ed Turlington, John Edwards' campaign chairman and longtime family friend. "She's been a working mom; she's been a daughter caring for elderly parents; she comes from a military family.

"I think on issues that Elizabeth has been involved with, she could have a real impact."

Indeed, by the time John Edwards ran for president the second time -- in 2008 -- Elizabeth had become a major political figure in her own right. She had written the first of her best-selling books, was attracting big crowds on the lecture circuit and helped shape her husband's platform, pushing him to the left on such issues as universal health care and the Iraq War. Admittedly strong-willed, she was seen as overbearing by some campaign staffers. But she was unapologetic.

"One of the things that I think you see sometimes in politics is a certain degree of caution," she said. "It's usually advised by consultants who don’t want to see you march to the end of a limb.

"But we're now at a point where we need actual answers, and not worry about whether or not we're standing really close to the trunk on these."

Edwards' increased political activism coincided with a downturn in her health. Though she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004 -- the day after the general election -- it was believed to be in remission. But in 2007, three months into her husband's second presidential campaign, she learned the disease had returned in a more ominous form.

At a 2007 news conference at the same hotel that hosted their wedding reception 30 years earlier, the couple announced that Elizabeth's cancer had recurred and was considered incurable. While her doctor laid out an uncertain prognosis, Elizabeth Edwards said they were pushing on with the campaign.

"Is this a hardship for us? Yes, it's yet another hurdle. But I've seen people who are in real desperate shape who don't have the wonderful support that I have," she said. "And it's unbelievably important that we get this election right."

Though Elizabeth Edwards was back shaking hands with voters a few days later, little else went right in that campaign. By the time Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, John Edwards' career and reputation had imploded in a stunning political scandal. It turned out that even while Elizabeth was coping with her terminal disease, her husband was carrying on an affair with a campaign worker, fathering the woman's child and partaking in an elaborate scheme to keep it secret.

Yet even as the truth dribbled out and the couple's marriage unraveled, Elizabeth didn't step back from the public eye. And in that 2009 NPR interview, after she released her second book, called Resilience, she said she was focused on the future.

"Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before," she said. "You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you've lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that's good."

In Resilience, Elizabeth Edwards contemplated her own death, writing that it didn't seem as frightening to her since she lost her oldest son. Reflecting on how she wants to remembered, she repeated one of her favorite metaphors. She wrote that at times, the wind didn't blow her way, but she said she was still able to stand in the storm, adjust her sails and move forward.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos

Elizabeth Edwards, born in 1949 in Jacksonville, Fla., died Dec. 7, at her home in Chapel Hill, N...

Throughout her life, Edwards wrote publicly about her struggles, including the death of her teena...

Edwards is seen in this 2004 photo with her family, as well as Democratic presidential candidate ...

Edwards shares a 27th anniversary lunch with her husband John at a Wendy's restaurant in Newburgh...

Edwards stands with Sen. Hillary Clinton during a Kerry/Edwards breakfast reception in New York i...

Elizabeth and John Edwards were married July 30, 1977. She used her maiden name of Elizabeth Anan...

John and Elizabeth met as law students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here, ...

Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards hugs his wife Elizabeth while they speak about her r...

Edwards poses with Lori Burgess of Niche Media (left) and publisher Paige Bishop at the Capito...

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama greets Elizabeth Edwards before the Des Moin...

Edwards is greeted by supporters before speaking at the official opening of the "Edwards for Pres...

Edwards smiles during a speech at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund conference in Washington, on...

Edwards hugs son Jack onstage after he was too embarrassed to talk in Ames, Iowa, Jan. 1, 2008. (...

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Edwards talk before testifying in Washington, D.C., about health ...

Edwards, Lisa Niemi, Maria Shriver and Susan Saint James participate in a panel discussion at the...

Elizabeth Edwards was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Here, she speaks with ...

Edwards spoke openly about having cancer, and after her husband confessed to an affair, she went ...

"Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before," s...

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, host:

And I'm Guy Raz.

Elizabeth Edwards has died. She catapulted into the public eye in 2004, when her husband, Senator John Edwards, ran for president and then agreed to be John Kerry's running mate on the Democratic ticket.

Over the next few years, Elizabeth Edwards wrote two best-selling books. She fought a well-publicized battle against cancer and saw her marriage crumble after her husband fathered a child with another woman.

From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Even for a public figure, Elizabeth Edwards led an extraordinarily public life. Not only did she do the things most political spouses do the fundraisers and the luncheon speeches and the campaign rallies - but she also allowed the country to share her personal struggles.

She wrote candidly about the death of her teenage son. She spoke openly about having cancer, even holding a press conference with her doctor to announce her diagnosis. And after her husband confessed to an affair, she went on the talk show circuit, explaining in a 2009 NPR interview that she hoped to help others by talking about her pain.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. ELIZABETH EDWARDS: One of the reasons that I sort of tried to share that with people is I wanted maybe to open the eyes of people who haven't been through the experience and maybe feel tempted to say this is what you're doing to the person you love. This is the private hell you're going to send them into if they do discover the ways in which you have betrayed them.

HOCHBERG: Edwards' candor won her both admirers and detractors as she became more popular than her husband. It was perhaps an unlikely destiny for a woman who had a middle-class upbringing and lived her first 50 years relatively quietly as a lawyer, homemaker and mother.

Ed Turlington was John Edwards' campaign chairman and a longtime family friend.

Mr. ED TURLINGTON (Lawyer): She has lived a life that many women can identify with. She's been a working mom. She's been a daughter caring for elderly parents. She comes from a military family. And I think on issues that Elizabeth has been involved with, she could have a real impact.

Unidentified Woman #1: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Elizabeth Edwards.

(Soundbite of applause)

HOCHBERG: Indeed, by the time John ran for president the second time in 2008, Elizabeth had become a major political figure in her own right. She had written the first of her best-selling books, was attracting big crowds on the lecture circuit, and helped shape her husband's platform, pushing him to the left on such issues as universal health care and the Iraq War.

Edwards' increased political activism coincided with a downturn in her health. Though she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004 - the day after the general election - it was believed to be in remission. But in 2007, three months into her husband's second presidential campaign, she learned the disease had returned in a more ominous form.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): We came today to talk about what's happened with Elizabeth and what's happened with her health situation.

HOCHBERG: At a 2007 news conference, at the same hotel that hosted their wedding reception 30 years earlier, the Edwardses announced that Elizabeth's cancer had recurred and was considered incurable. While her doctor laid out an uncertain prognosis, Elizabeth said they were pushing on with the campaign.

Ms. EDWARDS: Is this a hardship for us? Yes, it's yet another hurdle. But I've seen people who are in real desperate shape who don't have the wonderful support that I have. And it's unbelievably important that we get this election right.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you so much.

Ms. EDWARDS: Thank you. Absolutely, thank you.

Unidentified Man: Best of luck to you.

Ms. EDWARDS: Thank you.

HOCHBERG: Though Elizabeth was back shaking hands with voters a few days later, little else went right in that campaign. By the time Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, John Edwards' career and reputation had imploded in a stunning political scandal.

It turned out that even while Elizabeth was coping with her terminal disease, her husband was carrying on an affair with a campaign worker, fathering the woman's child and partaking in an elaborate scheme to keep it secret.

Yet even as the truth dribbled out and the Edwards's marriage unraveled, Elizabeth didn't step back from the public eye. And in that 2009 NPR interview, after she released her second book called "Resilience," she said she was focused on the future.

Ms. EDWARDS: Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before. You can fight it. You can do nothing but scream about what you've lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that's good.

HOCHBERG: In "Resilience," Elizabeth Edwards contemplated her own death, writing that it didn't seem as frightening to her since she lost her oldest son. And reflecting on how she wants to be remembered, she repeated one of her favorite metaphors. She wrote that at times, the wind didn't blow her way, but she said she was still able to stand in the storm, adjust her sails and move forward.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular