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Posted at 9:23 AM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Elizabeth Edwards's legacy

By Ezra Klein

The first time I came to Washington as an adult, I came to visit Elizabeth Edwards. It was May 2005, and a few weeks earlier, I'd gotten an e-mail inviting me to dinner with her and her husband. The invitation came from Elizabeth, but the one I was excited to meet was John. I was, after all, a young political junkie, and John Edwards was -- or at least just had been -- a real live presidential candidate.

There were a couple of bloggers invited that night, and when I rang the doorbell, it was John Edwards who answered and ushered me in. Behind him was a woman I didn't recognize. She was heavyset with short gray hair, and she was setting the table. I assumed she was staff or perhaps an older relative. Then, of course, she came and sat down.

Edwards was then being treated for cancer, and she'd decided against wearing a wig that night. There was a sweet moment when John Edwards tried to rally the bloggers to convince Elizabeth she didn't need to wear a wig at all, not ever, but she didn't want to talk about that.

I wish I had a clearer memory of exactly what she did want to talk about that night. I remember the dinner. Lasagna and steamed broccoli and baked-meats-in-sauce that Edwards had made herself and that she shuttled back-and-forth from the kitchen while making complicated points about national security. I remember how impressed I was with her mind and how the excitement of meeting her husband was quickly overshadowed by the pleasure of meeting her. But what I really remember is what we talked about on other nights: Health-care reform.

The video atop this post is from a 2008 event I moderated on behalf of Campus Progress. It was Edwards's first public event after the 2008 campaign and the subsequent revelations of her husband's infidelity, and this was what brought her back into the public eye. Health-care reform. When she showed up, she was carrying a 50-page journal article that used survey data to connect foreclosures to health-care costs. She was the real deal, as you can see from her blogging on the subject.

But Edwards's real impact on health-care reform was much larger than people realize. She pushed her husband to make a comprehensive and universal health-care reform plan the centerpiece of his second presidential campaign. She succeeded. John Edwards was the first of the major Democratic candidates to come out with a universal health-care plan, and his proposal, combined with the warm reception it received from major Democratic interest groups and constituencies, forced both Obama and Clinton to counter with their own universal health-care plans. (Additionally, when Obama flew to North Carolina to court Edwards's endorsement, he got into an argument with Elizabeth over the individual mandate -- an argument that, as you can see from the individual mandate in the health-care law, she eventually won.)

The end result was that the three candidates ended up fighting over who would do more to pass a universal health-care bill the fastest, which meant they made repeated promises that, in Obama's case, he eventually found himself having to keep. Without Elizabeth Edwards's involvement, the Edwards campaign would likely have come out with a more modest effort, and the Obama and Clinton campaigns would have taken a similarly incremental approach, and none of the campaigns would have made as many promises on the subject as they did, and health-care reform might never have passed.

That -- and not marital betrayal, or even cancer -- is Elizabeth Edwards's legacy. It may not be how she's remembered, and it may not be what leads her obituaries, but it's what she did. And as a policy wonk, Edwards knew full well that it's what gets done, not what gets said, that matters. I've met a lot of politicians and presidential candidates since that evening at her house. But looking back, the one I'm proudest to have known was her.

By Ezra Klein  | December 8, 2010; 9:23 AM ET
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kindred spirits.

her influence in your life, will always continue to guide you, in your work.
keep fighting her good fight.

Posted by: jkaren | December 8, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Dear Ezra,

Thank you so much for sharing your memories and thoughts. Elizabeth Edwards had the heart of a lioness and she will be missed.

Posted by: Maezeppa | December 8, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Great post, Ezra.

Posted by: MosBen | December 8, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

EE and her exhusband were political opportunists and charlatans of the first order.

The country would be better off never to have heard of them, and never to have entertained any of their nonsense once it did.

An ambulance chaser and his calculating drudge played Klein and others for the fools they are, and he and they are still in thrall to them. Manipulated by a wig.

Posted by: msoja | December 8, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

This is a lovely tribute to a strong woman who made a large impact. Thank you, Ezra.

Posted by: marisue67 | December 8, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

It takes a brave person to look at death, and say they are not afraid, Mrs Edwards was that type of person. The truth is that for all the lip service given to women and breast cancer, it is just that lip service. Why? For over the last 55 years that I know of, every time I turn around I always hear that the cure for cancer is just around the corner, in about 5 years. When I was young the surgical procedure in style with doctors was the hysterectomy, seems breast cancer was not the well known in the 50's and 60's. The reason I'm being so blunt, is that if more funds where spent in cancer research then blowing up the world 1,000 times over or billions to bail out Wall Street, there may have been a cure. I'd bet that if the rate of Testicular cancer was a high as breast cancer, research for the cure would be on the FAST track. And As long as the medical industry is making billions off of cancer, and is a growing industry don't expect a cure until a replacement if found. Maybe this generation or the next can change our priorities and that reality.

Posted by: southernrican | December 8, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I always felt she used her drama with her husband to sell books but this is a sad ending. Honestly I don't know if I would have let the man who nationally humiliated me and had a child be at my bedside in the end. For me that time is reserved for my daughters, parents and siblings. I always felt her having kids, being ill and not sleeping with John is what drove him into the street and she knew this. She knew he wasn an egomaniac!!! That's why she forgave him (disgusing it under the kids). Before ppl scream "Am I blaming her?" No I blame her for living in what SHE created. Yes Lizzy it takes a strong woman to use cancer and the media but even stronger women (because I'm divorced) know when to walk away from an unhealthy marriage FOR THE KIDS! Yes I would tell John keep Hunter away from my kids. Give her that ounce of decency. RIP girl I'm glad you get to see your first born again....

Posted by: MDlady2 | December 8, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

very good post on Mrs. Edwards although I don't think we needed the part about her setting the table and making dinner. Most of us all do that. I'd rather hear about how she helped drive the healthcare debate (and the mandate part which i wasn't aware of).

and to southernican i'd say its not gender biased and the below table from shows that there is more incidence of new cases of prostate cancer than breast cancer which can be both male and female. Cancer as has been shown is an equal opportunity killer. It doesn't care if you're man or woman, rich or poor, black or white Democrat or Republican.

And to answer your question yes more should be spent on cancer research than on wars. You're totally right on there.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 8, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

sorry i guess it would help if i actually linked to what i said i was going to.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 8, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Hate to break it to you, mr journolist, but how someone is remembered IS their legacy. Somehow I don't think history is going to remember for anything but being a brave woman who fought cancer while her husband was playing with the help.

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | December 8, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

And as a footnote,she memorably pointed out in the campaign that under McCain's health care plan, neither he nor she would be able to get coverage.

Posted by: sprung4 | December 8, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this piece. It is lovely and very moving. A picture to remember her by.

Posted by: jt15 | December 8, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

If it were not for her ex-husband, and 'goober', John, she would never have been able to demonstrate to us all how wonderful a human she really was.

Posted by: denniscav | December 8, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

When I heard that Elizabeth Edwards had died, I remembered my own moments of grief, and then I thought of you. You made her the person I will remember with blog entries such as this one. Well done Ezra.

Posted by: punchaxverulam | December 8, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I lost a very good friend in September who really admired Elizabeth Edwards, so did I. Her death brings back all of those old memories. As Billy Joel said, "Only the good die young." It's sad.

Posted by: Alon1 | December 8, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Great Article! I remember when I first heard of Elizabeth Edwards cancer I sent her a wishing her well letter & a lucky key chain piece. She was a rock for her family & friends she sent me a very warm thank-you letter:

Posted by: johnpavon | December 11, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

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