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The Cartooning of Elizabeth Edwards

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For a woman in American politics, there's simply no floor space between harridan and sainthood. There's nowhere to stand, no place to exist, no neutral platform from which to speak. No gray. Bitch or angel, and too few of the latter.

Take Elizabeth Edwards, dying of cancer and the target of the post-2008 whisperings of campaign aides eager for revenge and an off-the-record chat with political Dirt Devils Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. For a while on what passes for the public commons in this country, Edwards was the Mother Theresa of the Democratic Party, holding on her illness-ravaged shoulders the shame of her husband's infidelity and the progressive dreams of followers who judged her calls for public health care to be legitimate.

No more. Cheered on by a Washington media rooting section that could only be portrayed by a cackling Heath Ledger brought back from the dead and replicated to fill every seat at Politico, Edwards is now caricatured as a shrill, unhinged she-devil rending her garments in airports and slicing the Achilles tendons of underlings with the vicious alacrity of a demanding hellcat.

I haven't read the apparently juicy Game Change yet, but I read the breathless excerpt in New York Magazine - which felt it necessary not only to carry the take-down of Edwards, but to cartoon the imaginary scenes as well. Yet reading all those juicy details about this supposedly evil woman merely provided a somewhat sad insight into a complicated and painful life lived during the glare of a national political campaign. There is nothing shocking in the one-sided Elizabeth Edwards portrayal in the book - indeed, it's as believable as her sainthood story...or Barack Obama's salvation myth concoctions. Which is to say, a bit but what does it matter.

And why the sheer mean-spirited style of the whole sorry mess? What's the point? I caught a minute or two of Halperin and Heilemann on Imus this morning. Halperin looked dizzy with the rush of attention, giddy with his well-publicized takedown. Heilemann, a good reporter whose work I've admired, looked apologetic and downcast. And as the dearth of sourcing becomes apparent - the book has no notes, and there's already budding controversy over direct quotes from people like Bill Clinton that are now characterized as paraphrases, and second-hand ones at that - I suspect a guy like Heilemann (who appears to have a soul) will become more dispirited. Because Digby has it right:

Sweet Jesus, I hate this goddamned Halperin/Heilemann tabloid atrocity.
It's got the villagers so excited I fear they are going to literally
orgasm on camera -- and that's something I just don't want to see. A
book based on backstabbing gossip from disgruntled campaign aides and
pissed off rivals is about as reliable a six year olds playing a game
of telephone. When you combine these nasty little tidbits with the
Villager sensibility and biases of the writers, you end up with a
docu-drama rather than a work of non-fiction.

Over at the Daily Beast, Lee Siegel takes the Elizabeth Edwards reporting apart, bit by bit. And it's not so much whether the stories are true, but whether they amount to anything at all:

According to the book, Elizabeth called John's campaign manager an
idiot. Maybe he was. She accused David Axelrod of lying to her. Maybe
he did. At one point during the 2004 presidential race, she "snarled"
at the people who were scheduling her appearances: "Why the fuck do you
think I'd want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?"
Well, why the fuck would she? Halperin and Heilemann are veteran
political reporters. Surely they know that such language and tantrums
are as common in political campaigns as their opposite: sheer,
calculated niceness.

You can't help but feel that the "crazy woman" character is so easily applied to females on the political stage - their anger is never contained, rarely effective, and almost never portrayed as just. It's usually just crazed, unhinged, pre-menstrual or menopausal. Glancing through the New York cartoons is a trip through that little garden of American political sexism so beloved by the mainstream media.

If Game Change (from what I've seen so far) is at all a reminder of the 2008 campaign, it's a reminder of that prism that existed then - and, God help us, exists now - that distorts the lives of public women and creates the kind of monsters that, I guess, sell books.