Diagnostic politics

Will Elizabeth Edwards’s cancer give her husband special grace?
By STEVEN STARK  |  March 28, 2007

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT IT . . .  John and Elizabeth Edwards met with sympathy and cynicism after announcing they would continue his campaign.

It’s an unfortunate fact of American political life that one’s entire personal life becomes public the minute one runs for office. So it went for John Edwards last week, with the disclosure that his wife Elizabeth’s cancer had returned. That fired up the pundits, who, after a few sympathetic nods, went straight into election-analysis mode.

With situations like this, it helps to wait before taking stock; even a week later, though, no one really knows how this will affect Edwards’s campaign. It’s true that as the life expectancy of Americans increases, political stories about illness become the rule, not the exception. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are both cancer survivors, as is John Kerry. Ann Romney has MS. Paul Tsongas waged an active campaign with his cancer in remission; and Ronald Reagan had major cancer surgery while president.

No one knew these stories in the past because the press didn’t report them. History might have taken some very different turns had Americans been informed about JFK’s Addison’s disease and colitis, the extent of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke or FDR’s polio, or Grover Cleveland’s jaw operation.

In this case, though it was obviously not one of the Edwardses’ considerations, the nation seemed impressed by the way the couple handled the situation. More than any other event in the campaign so far, it captured public attention and became “water cooler” talk. While some undoubtedly found fault with the Edwardses’ decision to let the campaign go forward, far more were struck by their grace and determination not to let this development stand in their way. They also saw the couple as a genuine team, in contrast with some notable others in the race. When John Edwards now talks on the stump, his promise to fight for the little guys who’ve taken their knocks will have new meaning.


Rudy Giuliani.
Odds for nomination: even.

The negative stories have begun to flow (last week it was that his current wife had a secret first marriage), but his numbers stay high. Either the public doesn’t care because they regard Giuliani much the way they did Eisenhower — as a national hero — or they’re not yet paying sufficient attention. Every week that Giuliani maintains his double-digit lead over McCain is another week he appears to be the inevitable choice, making it harder for his opponents to raise money against him. He’s still not really campaigning in Iowa, though, which leaves him vulnerable to the rise of a formidable opponent who could come out of nowhere in the initial caucus state.

John McCain.
Odds: 5-3.

McCain still has a long way to go. There appears to be something static about his efforts so far, including in the arena of fundraising; a good first debate outing would help a lot.

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