Published March 29, 2007
WASHINGTON – As he tries to explain how he'll cope with the return of his wife's cancer, presidential hopeful John Edwards is opening up about another family struggle — the death of his teenage son Wade 11 years ago.
His family life suddenly in the spotlight, Edwards has responded by speaking about an experience bound to bring him sympathy, humanize his campaign and focus on perseverance after tragedy.
The discussion began last Thursday when John and Elizabeth Edwards announced her breast cancer had spread to her bone. It continued Saturday when Edwards was asked if he could balance the campaign and her diagnosis.
"This is not the first challenge like this Elizabeth and I have been through," Edwards said at a candidate forum in Las Vegas. "As many of you know, we lost our son about 10, actually about 11 years ago now — in 1996."
Wade Edwards was 16 when he died, on the way to the family beach home in their home state of North Carolina, when a gust of wind swept his Jeep off the highway.
Wade's name is spoken frequently in the Edwards household, those close to them say, alive in the memories of his parents and sister and even well-known by two siblings born after his death. But Edwards had been hesitant to bring his oldest son into his political life, even though by many accounts Wade inspired his father to run for office.
Edwards wore his son's Outward Bound pin on his suit jacket in silent tribute throughout the 2004 campaign. He sometimes wears the pin on the 2008 trail.
The Edwardses didn't want his son to be remembered for his death, but his life, those close to them say. They started a foundation in Wade's name to support causes important to him, such as scholarships and a computer lab where students can get after-school help.
A person close to the Edwardses, who did not want to be quoted talking about their family decisions, said they are talking more openly about their experience with Wade's death because they believe it helps answer legitimate questions about how they will cope with Mrs. Edwards' cancer.
When asked during last Thursday's news conference how they could stay focused on the campaign — and perhaps eventually with running the country — Mrs. Edwards cited her husband's work on the Wade Edwards Foundation.
"He has an unbelievable toughness, a reserve that allows him to push forward with what needs to happen," she said. "It's what happened after our son died in 1996."
Edwards was asked in an interview broadcast Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" why he and his wife want to go through a presidential campaign when she has a finite period of time left.
"We all have a finite period of time, and the idea that we know what that finite period is, is a fantasy to begin with," Edwards responded. "As we learned in 1996, with our son, we don't know what's going to happen."
The cruel tragedy of Wade's death changed everything for the Edwardses. Mrs. Edwards quit her job as an attorney, their daughter Cate canceled her plans to attend boarding school and a year later John Edwards began campaigning for the Senate.
He declined to talk much about Wade in that race and in his first White House run. His most extensive revelations about Wade during the 2004 presidential race came in his book, "Four Trials," in which he described the loss as "the undercurrent of my life."
"Nothing in my life has ever hit me and stripped everything away like my son's death," Edwards wrote. "That moment, those days, belong to our family."
Just weeks before Wade died, the teen was honored at the White House by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, now Edwards' chief rival for the Democratic nomination, for an essay he wrote about going into the ballot box with his father as a young boy.
Other presidential candidates have openly talked about their tragedies on the campaign trail. Former Vice President Al Gore discussed his sister's death from cancer, and former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, promoting his health care plan, spoke about his son's successful cancer treatment.
"Some people like to say that their private life is separate, but I think that's a myth," said Erik Smith, a top adviser on Gephardt's 2004 campaign. "The reality is that if you are running for president, your life isn't private any more.
"Personal stories and personal anecdotes help them overcome voter cynicism," Smith said. "A lot of time people assume the worst about politicians and assume their positions come from polling, and particularly on presidential campaigns, it's important for people to understand that those policies come from a personal place."
Democrat Joe Biden, another candidate in the 2008 race, has also experienced tragedy. He lost his wife and infant daughter in a car accident shortly after his first election to the Senate in 1972. In 1988, he was hospitalized for months after suffering two brain aneurysms.
Biden sometimes talks about the experiences, particularly in discussions of health care. Recently in an appearance before the nation's largest firefighters union, he expressed gratitude for firefighters who saved his two sons who were also injured in the car crash but recovered. He said firefighters also drove him to a neurosurgeon in a snowstorm for the operation that saved his life.
"We owe you big," he said. "You literally saved the lives of three Bidens."
Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager, said family narratives can give more meaning to a candidate's reason for running, but the discussion must be balanced so the candidate is not seen as exploiting tragedy.
"I think the Edwards are bringing in Wade to say, 'We've faced tragedy and we've overcome and we will overcome again,"' Brazile said.
Mrs. Edwards was always more open about discussing Wade, although also careful not to be seen as using his memory for political gain in the 2004 campaign. She wrote more about her grief in an autobiography that came out last year, "Saving Graces."
Asked about how much it drives his life in an interview on MSNBC's "Hardball" in December, Edwards responded that "it makes you think about what you are doing and makes you probably more interested in serving."
"When I die, I want to feel like Wade's death and his life helped me realize this," he said. "I want to feel like I've done everything I can to serve, whatever that turns out to be."