Elizabeth Bennet, Meet Elizabeth Edwards

The health care advocate offers an ironic take on campaign coverage

About halfway through Elizabeth Edwards’s campaign-coverage criticism on yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page came one of the most affecting passages I’ve read on that page in quite a while:

Watching the campaign unfold, I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride. And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife.

The line that struck was the last one: the reference to the former senator “standing loyally beside” his ill wife. Because the ill wife in question is, of course, Elizabeth Edwards.

There’s an especially affecting irony in Edwards’s reference to herself and her story in the third person. We’re used to encountering such dissociative narration from Austen and Woolf and other authors of literature; but when the narrative trope—in this instance, a voice that colludes the private and the public by relating personal experience in the third person—comes in the middle of a lawyerly indictment of the press (and in relation to something as generally non-literary as campaign coverage), the weight of its irony is full and affecting.

And it’s an apt brand of irony: if a presidential campaign does anything to those either noble or foolish enough to wage one, it commodifies them. But Edwards’s detached treatment of her own incurable cancer, via the narrative life it’s taken in its press coverage, seems even more absurd for its aptness. And it serves as a reminder of something so obvious we sometimes seem not just to take it for granted, but to forget it altogether: that the characters at the center of the campaigns’ composite (Melo)Drama are not, in the end, characters at all, but people—and that their stories, as related by the press, are not plots, but lives. Our penchant for forgetting—or, worse, ignoring—that fact allows, in part, the phenomenon Edwards describes: “Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didn’t fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities.”

In that light, the Props of the Pageant—the bowling balls, the whiskey shots, the hairbrushes—seem even more distracting. And more absurd.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.