With the recent (and pathetically staged) “apology” of the allegedly sex-addicted Tiger Woods fresh in our minds, I read and re-read three books from spouses of politicians who have strayed. This growing body of reading material begs the question: “is it worth the paper it is printed on?”
“My truth is I am a gay American.” When I watched the governor of New Jersey declare this in August, 2004, with his picture-perfect blond wife at his side, my only thought was, “And you had to stand next to him to further your humiliation because?” In her 2007 book, Silent Partner, Dina Matos McGreevey explains why she stood by his side that day. She explains that she stood by her husband because he asked her to be “Jackie Kennedy” that day. She could have refused. The best compliment she has for her ex-husband in the book? “The sex was good.” Throughout most of the book, however, the former first lady of New Jersey describes her ex-husband as a self-important, pathological liar who said more to the people of New Jersey than to her about his realization that he is gay. That she was left for another man and not another woman is the “news hook”, I suppose about McGreevey’s book, but this book left me feeling sorry for all of them and hoping that by writing such a bitter tale, Dina Matos feels better. Like the Jenny Sanford book, Staying True, McGreevey’s book is full of bitterness over slights that at the time seemed a little weird, but in retrospect were pointing to a big problem in the marriage.
So it was a relief when Jenny Sanford didn’t subject herself to the same media glare when her governor husband gushed like a school boy and rambled on about crying with his soul mate in Argentina. In June, 2009, when Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina made his stream of conscience confessional, it was good that he stood alone. The first lady’s absence showed certain defiance. But now Jenny Sanford is telling everyone how she is “staying true” in her tell-all book by the same name. Besides the obvious financial gains of writing a best-selling book, what good can come of her over-sharing about the kinds of things better left for pillow-talk?
Now I am all for expanding women’s voices. I live for it. But what is gained by information like this? As a mother I cringe for her four sons. They should come to their own conclusions about their father. And Jenny Sanford no doubt could spend her considerable talent and energy doing something of greater import.
I picture a glint in the eye of Jenny Sanford as she describes events that would better be left between the two of them. Do we need to know about how the governor returned a favorite diamond necklace because he regretted spending as much as he did on it or how he left her alone while she underwent a tubal ligation to avoid the danger of a fifth pregnancy? The portrait of Mark Sanford that emerges from this book is one of a narcissistic lightweight woefully lacking in the sensitivity department. I already sensed as much without reading one page.
Who could not admire Elizabeth Edwards? Mother of a dead teenager, cancer patient and political spouse; each role a burden. But when word of her husband’s unfaithfulness hit the news, I wondered why thoughtful and intelligent Elizabeth Edwards would dignify it with a book. Until I read it.
Additionally, when the new book Game Change characterized the (soon to be former) wife of John Edwards as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending everywoman” I had to get my hands on that book to read the whole incriminating excerpt. That book is too salacious for my taste, but back to the book review at hand.
Resilience is not what I expected, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. When I teach communication at Penn State, I tell my students that the “rhetorical situation” is any set of circumstances that invites an utterance or writing that aims to influence others. I’m influenced, indeed, by Elizabeth Edwards.
Political spouses are especially interesting to me, since they are, in most cases, thrust into the spotlight as surrogates to their spouse-candidate. If John Edwards never ran for political office, it is most unlikely that we would have ever heard of Elizabeth Edwards. After reading Resilience I come away with this perception of Elizabeth Edwards in particular and the perception of political spouses in our country in general.
The book is unique because unlike other books in the ‘wronged’ political wife genre (the category is getting thick), this book is most reflective, sad and inspiring. Clearly the stake in Elizabeth Edwards’s heart was the untimely death of her first born son, Wade and not so much the intrusion of Rielle Hunter into her marriage. She painstakingly recounts the car accident that lead to his death (dishes survived the crash, but he died; she looked for him everywhere after his death, including drawers) and as a mother I want to embrace her (and my teenage son) because she poignantly writes of the fortitude needed to continue after so great a loss. Her husband’s infidelity, though a tragedy all its own, is reduced to the seduction from a young upstart who told the then-candidate, “You’re so hot.”
The image of political spouses that the press and books like Game Change would have us hold onto is one dimensional. These “first ladies in waiting” as I like to call them are either super-nice and pretty or the b word and ugly or fat. I have no doubt that Elizabeth Edwards was at times difficult on the campaign trail. Put any one of us out of our comfort zone of hearth, home and regular routine and you will be surprised how quickly we would unravel. Like most of the women I know, the Elizabeth Edwards that emerges from her own writing is smart, sad, trying to be strong, loving, and in desperate need to share her side of the story. Of particular value to parents of children who have died are the coping strategies revealed in the book Resilience. In this book she shares the most private, personal pain a person could possibly endure.
Besides the sobering lessons in Edwards’s book is that sad reality that most of the time the American press and public prefers a dumbed-down version of the political spouse. The media wants not even sound bites from our political spouses, but “picture bites” usually of Barbie-doll like perfection, demure, uncomplicated and ultimately quiet. If they don’t match that picture, they are characterized as the opposite: shrill and unacceptable. Elizabeth Edwards is a one-time political spouse, but more than that, I believe by telling her stories in two books (her first book Saving Graces is more concentrated on the loss of her son than being stalwart in general) she has inched forward the stagnant image of the political spouse in a way that not even Hillary Clinton has done. Elizabeth Edwards isn’t running for anything and is unlikely to have a public future. In a quiet, dignified way she has told her story. From her story of heart-wrenching pain and pleasure, a complete person emerges, defying the usual stereotype of one-dimensional political spouses. I am indifferent about former political candidate John Edwards and I predict his story will quickly recede from public interest. McGreevey’s book and Sanford’s book are too bitter to be enjoyed and offer few, if any, lessons. Elizabeth Edwards, however has made a lasting impression on me and a contribution to reading with her thoughtful, open-hearted book, Resilience.
Nichola D. Gutgold is author of several books on women’s communication styles. http://www.nicholagutgold.com