This past Sunday, Sally Quinn wrote a thought provoking Washington Post column about Elizabeth Edwards that got many of my friends talking. She took a slightly different tack than much of the other media coverage has taken. In the outcry about John Edward's revelations, she pointed one of her fingers at Elizabeth Edwards, as an enabling wife. In my humble opinion, there are arguably many ways to examine this kind of a news story. There are so many angles in the prism from which to view it; who is at fault, who did what to whom, who is lying and when did they lie. In short -- the world has always been and is full of human frailty. But when someone is running for public office, it does require a stronger microscope.
Frankly, I was heartened that the Saturday morning after Edward's admission, the Today Show ratings handily beat their competition with their exclusive Olympics coverage. I thought this augured well for America. A splash of international sports competition in China was far more captivating to the average American viewer than the same tawdry political story of the lying, cheating, son of a bitch with the blonde permed floozy. "Oh, another page out of the Gary Hart Monkey Business book," yawned my sister. Perhaps, as citizens, we have become more like the French when it comes to expectations for our political leaders; a dalliance here, a blow job there, a call girl in the hotel room or the swelling belly housing a love child tucked away in a penthouse suite. Oh, that. Yawn.
Before I begin my defense of enablers, let me make one thing clear. It's entirely possible that I may be the biggest patsy alive. I'd like to believe my husband has been honest with me all of these years. And perhaps, at this very moment, he's speed dialing some stripper from the Badda Bing Club, or getting ready for a nooner in between bites of his sandwich at a no-tell motel. If so, I suppose that would make me an enabler too.
When most of us enter marriage we base our union on one big important thing -- trust. When we take those vows, be they the antiquated ones "honor and obey" or some groovy updated version "we will always listen to one another's point of view," we spouses mostly jumped in believing we would trust the other person to hold up their end of the bargain. Unless, of course, one is marrying someone with a checkered past; a tattooed Tommy Lee of the rock world, or Elizabeth Taylor, for example, someone for whom commitment and vows seem.... perhaps a bit more elastic.
So if Elizabeth Edwards had niggling doubts somewhere in the past, if she and her husband talked it over and he assured her he was telling the truth, well, somewhere in there the trust factor had to come into play. Sometimes because we do love, we fill in trust in places our spouse may not deserve. Even when our heads are telling us not to, our hearts create the trust bridge. I want to believe my husband does love me when he tells me so. And I don't need to go looking for trouble until I begin to smell something that might stink like fish.
Is it truly possible to recognize all of the dangers, the warning signs lying out there in wait for us during one lifetime? That inability to always navigate correctly, to hope, perhaps, for the best in our marriages, is what makes us human. Presumably it's what keeps people like Elizabeth Taylor going back to the well each time, in hopes that she will truly find her Prince Charming. For those of us weaned on Cinderella and Snow White, somewhere in our marrow, people like me still want to believe in true love. We still hope that it can conquer all, no matter what dings and dents life throws at us.
I cannot imagine anyone being willing to endure a marriage grounded in continual suspicion or assumption of wrongdoing. Yes, there is a fine line between gullibility and believing in someone, between stupidity and strapping on a set of blinders. But if I've asked my hubby the same question four different ways and he's answered it the same way every time -- I want to believe he is right. Who among us is licking their chops to call the private investigator when life appears to be moving in the right direction? Who sits, daily vigilant for a sign of transgression, for a hair or two on the forearm to stand on end, to feel that "sixth sense." Who aches to sit outside a honky tonk bar in a trench coat with binoculars? Who invests in a home lie detector set just to keep "handy" by the bed? Only the miserable I suppose.
It's often said that the only people who really know what goes on in a marriage are the two who are in it. I know that I pray never to be the wife who has resorted to checking her husband's Internet history for child porn sites or titillating emails, the 1950's equivalent of lipstick on the collar. How can we possibly know -- and why should we be entitled to -- the delicate dance between what a wife knows, what she wants to believe, what she does believe and what a husband tells or obfuscates when infidelity is involved.
And so I argue that we leave Elizabeth alone. Whether John Edwards was carrying on the affair in 2006 may very well be our business. Whether or not his wife knew in 2006 is firmly HER business. That belongs in the category marked "inner workings of a marriage." She was not the one running for public office, she was doing what strong women like Silda Wall Spitzer, Cynthia McCain and countless other accomplished, well educated, dedicated mothers have done throughout history -- trusted their man, believed in him and supported his ambitions in numerous ways.
Like scores of public wives before her, she was no different than you or me. She wanted to believe that her marriage had what it took to go the long haul: that it could survive the unthinkable death of a child, a duel with cancer and then the heart-stopping news that the disease had returned in a more virulent form. And through all of that, I have to believe that what didn't kill them, made the good parts of their marriage stronger. And it set an admirable lesson for their children about life and perseverance, about strength and looking for silver linings while you stare down violent, black storm clouds. This is tough stuff. In the face of all of that "life-testing" can you imagine running an investigative behind-the-scenes check on your husband too -- just in case he was a philanderer?
And here is my other reason for defending enablers. The children. When backed into a corner, a mother lion will fight to the death to spare her cubs. It's programmed into human nature too. So whatever Elizabeth was doing, whenever she knew, whether or not she went on, with cancer, to campaign for her husband with this betrayal clasped in her breast -- whatever she did, you have to believe she was putting her kids first. And when you are the one left holding the bag of feces, after something unexpected blows up in the family's face, you will do whatever you can to make it alright for the kids, two of whom must be trotting off to school shortly, ready to face the judgment and scrutiny of classmates and parents. There is a fine line between sympathy and pity. And a good mother tries to mitigate that as well.
Yes, as much of a rubbernecking car wreck as this is -- and now that the wolf pack has been sicked on John Edwards to determine the lineage of this love child and who is paying whom -- now, I suppose some of it is our right as taxpayers to know. The hounds are already yelping in the distant brush. But it makes me long for the decades of discretion. I think nostalgically of the days when the secret service smuggled a breathy Marilyn Monroe into the White House. I yearn for the private and broad brush-stroked affairs of past presidents, well documented posthumously, but squarely off limits to the press corps of the time. When it comes to protecting the children, I think folks like Jackie O or Lady Bird got it right. Kick him in the scrotum behind the privacy of closed doors, but protect the children at all costs. Even if it means masquerading as an enabler.
UPDATE, 8-15-08, 10:20am:
To all the readers of my blog posts:
Firstly, I love your comments, so keep them coming -- you all have interesting, and diverse thoughts and opinions. This kind of discourse is fun. It's what keeps us alive as a society.
As a mother of four, one who is currently on vacation with all of her kids on what has been an endlessly rainy month where I am -- there is never any extended period of time during which to visit the bathroom by yourself, let alone think.
In reading all of your comments I wanted to add two thoughts that I'd originally had when I sat down (14 different times) to write my Edwards blog in between "Mooo..ooom, she's in my chair" and "When is dinner..."
Firstly, all of you who struggled with the word "enabler" and wrote about that -- thank you. One of the first thoughts I'd originally had when I read Quinn's column was how much I absolutely hate this new-agey, over-used, psycho-babbling word. Enabler-- what does that really mean anyway? It seems like a great word to deflect and dissipate blame from the sinner. Has the wife whose husband has been secretly binge drinking airline bottles of booze in the garage aided his addiction?
Is the mother who didn't find the pot in her kid's school locker an enabler? Some of us simply can't know everything about everyone. Surely we all have doubts about everything at some time, we all second guess ourselves, but I'd like to believe we are all guilty of trying to look for the best parts of our spouses, our children, our neighbors until we see the red herring.
Did the Edwards risk the Democratic nomination by hiding this knowledge? If, in fact, she DID know all in 2006, then I agree that was harmful to the American public.
My point is that we don't really know exactly what she knew then. And it isn't our place to pick over the bones of that one fact at this juncture. That is between them at this point and the damage is done. He didn't get the nomination so in this Greek play, the Gods of fate dealt their hand. America was saved!
What he did with Ms Hunter? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Shame, shame, shame. His actions are worthy of our microscope. He has been publicly castrated already and one can only guess what is going on behind closed doors. (And for those objecting to scrotum-kicking - relax -- don't be so literal, think figurative!)
My point is that we don't really know exactly what she knew. And there is no point in continuing to kick her now. What people do in the dynamics of a marriage is really their business. After the camera takes the confession, after the public figure is humiliated, after we all shake our heads and say "how is it possible these guys think it will never be discovered?" (Do politicians no longer study history, despite their hubris colored glasses?) it's time for us to back away from the bleeding body of the wife.
In fact, how about this theory? Has anyone considered that she didn't know anything in 2006, but in the face of all of this media attention, in all the hideous accusations that are raining down on a family with three innocent kids, perhaps she decided to present a united front and look like an "enabler" to protect them, not him. To make it go away faster. Because really it's all a mess.
A mother lioness will act before she thinks sometimes. She will throw her own body before the tusks of the wild boar to keep her cubs safe. And hasn't Elizabeth Edward's body taken enough blows by now?
Keep up the discourse -- you are a fun bunch. And thanks for reading.
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