At first it was unclear exactly how Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, would fit in with Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Joseph Ellis and Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney ticket.
Mrs. Edwards, who made one her first public appearances Saturday in Hartford since the nation was stunned by news of her husband’s infidelity, never mentioned her husband’s name as she spoke about a spouse’s role in a presidential campaign and how her husband made a decision to run again in 2008 after losing the vice presidency in 2004.
“If he had run the same campaign in 2004, he might have won,” Edwards told thousands at the Bushnell during the Connecticut Forum’s conversation entitled, The Presidency. “These ideas in a less cluttered field may have gotten more attention.”
The ideas Mrs. Edwards was referring to include universal health care and the elimination of poverty—both of which were themes in her husband’s campaign. When asked at a press conference prior to the event if her husband was still working on his campaign to end poverty, which brought him to Hartford this past July, she declined to comment.
“Why do we care about what spouses do?” Michel Martin, the NPR reporter moderating the conversation, asked.
Mr. Dowd said spouses were never part of the equation until Hillary Clinton’s active role in the White House changed how Americans view candidate couples. “Now spouses are part of the package,” he said.
Mr. Ellis, who said his father was a member of John F. Kennedy’s Secret Service detail in the White House, said his infidelity was infamous. He said at the time the media knew about it, but it was a detail of his private life. He said that back then the media separated a person’s public life from their private life, but now it’s impossible to sustain that because of the “24/7” news cycle.
Mrs. Edwards said one of the first spouses to influence the electorate was Rosalynn
Carter, the wife of former president Jimmy Carter. She said that by sitting down at the kitchen table and talking about issues with people in Iowa, Mrs. Carter—a farmer like many Iowans—was able to influence voters and help her husband reach the White House.
Mrs. Edwards said she tried to do the same thing for her husband, and that on the campaign trail her conversations with people were no different than the ones she had for years with mothers in the carpool line as she waited to pick up her children from school.
“Do you regret getting George Bush elected?” Martin, reading a question from an audience member, asked Mr. Dowd, who is a distant cousin to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd..
“Would I make the decision differently today? Absolutely,” he said.
“I believed he was going to bring the country together,” Mr. Dowd said. “I think political leaders have angels of good and bad within them and around them, and they can either listen to the angel that’s good or the angel that’s bad.”
Mrs. Edwards pointed out to Mr. Dowd that his metaphor was completely transparent, drawing laughter and applause from the audience.
Mr. Dowd said President Bush may not be “the most intellectually curious person,” but “he, at his heart, is a good person.” However, in the end he wound up with a bad set of policies and bad people surrounding him, Mr. Dowd said.
How will history judge the current president?
Mr. Ellis, who has taught history at Mount Holyoke College since 1972, said he puts Bush last on his list. “I think he will be ranked at the bottom,” he said, adding that many other historians feel the same way. However, Mr. Ellis said, Bush’s ranking amongst the country’s presidents could increase if global warming is proven to be a hoax or if Iraq becomes an epicenter of democracy in the middle east, he said, drawing laughter and applause.
“All presidents can become great if they oversee great crisis,” Mr. Ellis said. “Whoever gets elected in the next election has a chance at greatness.”
Mr. Dowd said it takes an incredible amount of discipline for a president to reach outside the bubble of his close advisors to get an idea of what the public really thinks.
Recounting a meeting he had with Bush in May 2004, when the campaign against John Kerry was far from a landslide, Mr. Dowd remembered looking at the president as he talked about his poll numbers, claiming they were comparable to those of Ronald Reagan before his re-election in 1984. Bush saw Mr. Dowd’s puzzled expression and asked him what was wrong, and Mr. Dowd said he remembers telling the president that those numbers weren’t as great as he seemed to think.
The president responded that Karl Rove, his top political advisor, had told him otherwise. Mr. Dowd then said he turned to Rove and told him he didn’t realize they were supposed to “bullshit the president.”
“There’s a natural tendency to keep good news flowing,” Mr. Dowd said.
Mrs. Edwards said that’s why Michelle Obama is so important, because she can bring Barack Obama back down to earth when he gets too full of himself, or if she doesn’t believe what his advisers may have said. She said generally people working on the campaign don’t care about making the spouse happy, because the spouse often is an impediment because she’s being honest.
Martin asked the panel if a candidate must be a little crazy to run for president today. All three agreed that a person must have a tremendous ego to think that they could run for president, and that the process—with candidates surrounded by advisors and adoring crowds—likely changes them along the way.
Mr. Ellis said that none of the founding fathers would have agreed to run for president in the modern era, not only because of the 24/7 exposure, but because they would have thought the modern American political process to be “equal to prostitution.” He also said that up until around 1900 it was considered inappropriate for a candidate to campaign for himself. That was left to surrogates, Mr. Ellis said, and it was Theodore Roosevelt who was the first to stump on his own behalf.
Before the panel discussion, a group of youth from the Connecticut Youth Forum met with the panel to ask questions. One young woman, Alexandra Gruber, 15, of Hall High School in West Hartford, asked Mrs. Edwards what it was like having the “whole world finding out your whole business. How do you deal with the whole world knowing … cancer, those kinds of things?”
Mrs. Edwards said “I don’t have a corner on all those things. I see people all the time who do it. Actually, my being public about those things has allowed me to get an enormous amount of support. A lot of people who have all the same things I have, most of them without the same kind of health insurance for example that I have. They don’t have people calling them ‘inspiring.’ They don’t have a spotlight on them, they don’t have a camera on them. And so I get a lot of support. So as much as something’s taken out of you, it’s also given back to you in a real way.”
Asked about her health during the panel discussion, Mrs. Edwards said her cancer had metastasized to her bones and that more than once she has been given a diagnosis of five years to live. However, she also said she is continuing to keep busy, including plans to open a furniture store next month, among other things.
For more information on Saturday’s event check out the Connecticut Forum’s live blog.