Photo: Art Streiber
If anyone had questioned Elizabeth Edwards's credentials as America's most outspoken political spouse, the final week in June erased all doubts. Viewers across the country were spellbound as she stood up to Ann Coulter, the acidic conservative commentator, who took aim at Edwards's husband on national TV. Coulter had savaged him four years earlier, trivializing the death of the couple's 16-year-old son, Wade. More recently she called the candidate a "faggot." This time she went a step further. "If I'm gonna say anything about John Edwards in the future," Coulter said on ABC's Good Morning America, "I'll just wish he had been killed in a terrorist assassination plot." Listening, Elizabeth thought, "Somebody needs to say 'Stop.'" The next day, sitting in Portland International Airport in Oregon, she watched Coulter on a live broadcast of MSNBC's Hardball, flanked by young Republicans and Democrats waving candidate placards. Waiting for her plane to board, Edwards pulled out her cell phone and dialed the call-in number provided by her staff. She was put right through. "In the South, when someone does something that displeases us," she said on the air, addressing Coulter, "we want to ask them politely to stop doing it.... These young people behind you are the age of my children. You're asking them to participate in a dialogue that's based on hatefulness and ugliness." Coulter flicked her hair and chided the Edwardses for using the "faggot" remark to raise funds on their website. But Edwards persisted in firmly asking Coulter to refrain from making personal attacks. The exchange was soon posted on YouTube, and within five days viewers watched it more than 300,000 times.
It was not her only candid moment of the week. At a Gay Pride breakfast in San Francisco, Edwards backed legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples—breaking with her husband, who supports civil unions but not marriage. Only a handful of political wives have so visibly bucked their spouses, women like Hillary Clinton, who in 1999 opposed her husband's clemency offer to Puerto Rican nationalists, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who lobbied FDR not to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II.
Some pundits have called Elizabeth Edwards's outspokenness a political ploy to broaden her husband's appeal. Those who know her best say it's Elizabeth through and through. Never one to shy away from controversial issues, she has become even more prone to speak her own truth since last March. That's when she announced that her breast cancer had returned with metastatic vengeance. First diagnosed in 2004, the cancer has now lodged in her bones. It is treatable with drugs but no longer curable. Doctors cannot offer a reliable prognosis. Still, Edwards told reporters immediately after getting the news that she would remain active in John's quest for the Democratic nomination. "I'm absolutely ready for this," she said. "I don't look sickly. I don't feel sickly." When CBS's Katie Couric reminded her, "You're staring at possible death," Edwards smiled a bit wearily. "Aren't we all, though?"
Although her candor and opinions may be unfamiliar to a national audience, her convictions took root long ago. Edwards traces them back to the '60s, when she was growing up on a U.S. military base in Japan during the escalation of the Vietnam War.