WASHINGTON - I had dinner once with John and Elizabeth Edwards, when he first burst onto the national scene.Looking across the booth at her grinning, boyish husband, she told me that it was irritating to be married to someone so comely who looked so much younger.
She was smiling, but she was telling the truth. The Edwardses reminded me of the Quayles - smooth, pretty boys married to tough, smart women they'd met at law school.
Elizabeth Edwards would have made a wonderful candidate herself. But she poured everything into John. And then John betrayed her. And then John betrayed his staff members, going ahead with the 2008 campaign, letting his disciples work around the clock because they believed in him and what he was running on, even though the Edwardses knew it could implode at any minute because of John's entanglement with Rielle Hunter.
Like Monica and Gennifer before her, Rielle was not a discreet choice. She inspired the literary character of Alison Poole, "an ostensibly jaded, sexually voracious" New York party girl who had the lead in Jay McInerney's novel Story of My Life and in a short story in his new book, How It Ended, as well as a couple of walk-ons in novels by Bret Easton Ellis.
What unimaginable stress to learn that you were trying to make your husband president at the same time his mistress was making a baby that could well be his. And while you were raising young kids and battling deadly cancer.
"He should not have run," Elizabeth Edwards writes in her new book, Resilience.
John told her about Rielle a few days after he announced in 2006, and she told him to drop out to "protect our family from this woman, from his act," she writes.
She said she cried, screamed and threw up when she found out. But she ended up going along, helping sell the voters on her husband's character as a truth teller and his charm as a loving husband and father. She had put so many quarters in the shiny slot machine of their mutual ambition. It was hard to walk away.
Just as it's hard to walk away from her desire to prosecute her husband and his former girlfriend now in public, while still taking the marriage "month by month."
John Edwards' political career is over, and he's being investigated by the feds about whether he used campaign money to underwrite his affair. Nobody - except Rielle - has any interest in hearing from him again. Americans would have been relieved if the last we heard of him was that cringe-inducing "Nightline" interview last year, when he made the argument that he was a helpless narcissist and that he hit on Rielle when Elizabeth's cancer was in remission.
But now Saint Elizabeth has dragged him back into the public square for a flogging on "Oprah" and in Time and at bookstores. The book is billed as helping people "facing life's adversities" and offering an "inspirational meditation on the gifts we can find among life's biggest challenges."
But it's a gratuitous peek into their lives, and one that exposes her kids, by peddling more dregs about their personal family life in a book, and exposes the ex-girlfriend who's now trying to raise the baby girl, a dead ringer for John Edwards, in South Orange, N.J.
Elizabeth said when they married, the only gift she asked John for was to be faithful.
"It didn't occur to me that at a fancy hotel in New York, where he sat with a potential donor to his anti-poverty work," Elizabeth writes in her book, "he would be targeted by a woman who would confirm that the man at the table was John Edwards and then would wait for him outside the hotel hours later when he returned from a dinner, wait with the come-on line 'You are so hot' and an idea that she should travel with him and make videos. And if you had asked me to wager that house we were building on whether my husband of then 28 years would have responded to a come-on line like that, I would have said no."
She may be smart, but she doesn't seem to know much about men.
Like Hillary with Monica, the feminist struck out at the girlfriend, implying that Rielle was a wacky stalker.
She's still helping her husband hedge on Rielle's baby, whom she refers to as "it," telling Oprah that she has "no idea" if the baby is John's, and adding: "It doesn't look like my children, but I don't have any idea."
Asked by Oprah whether she's still in love with her husband, she replied, "You know, that's a complicated question."
The really complicated question is what she hopes to gain from this book.
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach her c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th. Ave., New York, 10018.
© 2009 New York Times News Service