Elizabeth Edwards's legacy
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.
| December 8, 2010; 9:23 AM ET
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