Fineman: Cancer and the Campaign

Is this a great Democratic presidential campaign, or what? The number of candidate “firsts” keeps growing: first spouse of a former president, first African-American with Ivy League credentials, first  Hispanic-American. And now we have the first candidate—John Edwards—to turn his spouse’s illness, and how he and she are dealing with it, into what he contends is an inspirational metaphor for the brand of leadership he offers the country.

I’ve seen a lot of press conferences, but none like the one that Edwards and his wife Elizabeth held on a sun-dappled lawn in Chapel Hill, N.C. Bottom line: yes, Elizabeth Edwards’s breast cancer had spread to the bone. No, there was no immediate danger. No, it was not curable, but yes, it was treatable—treatment would last the rest of her life, however long that may be (years or even decades). As for the campaign, he said, “it goes on, goes on strongly.”

They sang a memorable duet of praise for each other, and for their determinedly sunny view of life amid tragedy. They had lost their beloved oldest son in a car crash when he was 16. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of the last presidential campaign. Now this. And yet, she said, she and her husband “always look for the silver lining.” She would continue to campaign; the chemo she would have to take would not be debilitating, at least initially, especially because the bone cancer was well-contained as of now. He was asked how he would be able to focus on a campaign for the country while at the same time worrying every minute about Elizabeth.

This was a test, he said, as the presidency is a test. To be president you had to have “maturity and judgment.” You had to be able to “focus.” This was “not the first time” he had had personal and family hardship to deal with. All of this made him a stronger more disciplined person, the former senator said—and, by implication, would make him a strong and steady president.

How’s that for a credential?

The border between the personal and the political has long since disappeared in American politics—if it ever really existed. But this was really a watershed moment, and one with which many voters will readily identify on several levels.

For one, cancer is no longer a death sentence. New treatments can allow cancer patients to fight the disease to a relative standstill. Americans can understand and cheer for those who refuse to let their own—or their family’s—cancer slow them down.

Americans can understand that the Edwardses are on a shared mission, and that she wants it to continue. Presidential candidates and their spouses aren’t like us in some ways—the main one being that they think that it is their duty to save the country and the world. But people honor couples who share love and a dream and faith—and the Edwardses do. They both believe deeply in him.

As to whether the response to cancer is emblematic of what an Edwards presidency would be, well, that is a big idea. It means is that her illness—and his handling of it, personally and politically—could become the central measure and meaning of his candidacy. She will travel with him, and on her own scheduled, and the questions will be constant and clinical. Everyone will be rooting for her—she is the real deal—but does that mean they will root for him?

We are in uncharted territory here, but I suppose that ultimately is Edwards’s point about the world.