Parents are embarrassing. It’s part of our job description. We wear the wrong clothes or talk too loudly or just breathe. Yet it could always be worse: as if it weren’t bad enough that former presidential hopeful and U.S. Senator John Edwards fathered a love child while publicly professing to truly, madly, deeply love his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, a grand jury now suspects he may have illegally spent money earmarked for his presidential campaign to secret away his paramour and their baby daughter.
On Friday, Edwards appeared in court in Winston-Salem, N.C., to be indicted on felony charges of conspiracy, false statements and campaign law violations. Usually when men do their perp walk, a grim-faced wife in sensible heels trudges solemnly alongside. On Friday, there was no wife: breast cancer claimed Elizabeth Edwards in December. She wouldn’t have been there anyhow; after news of the baby went gangbusters, she dumped her law-school sweetheart.
Instead, the sensibly heel-clad woman flanking Edwards was his daughter, Cate. Like her father, she’s an attorney, but she was ostensibly by Edwards’ side not to offer legal counsel but emotional support. At 29, she’s a protective older sister to her two younger siblings (three, if you count her controversial half-sister, Frances Quinn), but she’s also likely a mother figure with their real mom gone. And now she’s standing in for her mother not only with her brother and sister, but with her father.
A political rake needs a stalwart sidekick, and Cate’s all he’s got these days. Did he ask her to accompany him to court? Did she offer?
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After Elizabeth Edwards died, I wondered here on Healthland about what would happen to her children. The piece focused on her younger kids, Emma Claire and Jack, who were 12 and 10 when she died. But now, just six months later, it’s Cate Edwards I feel worst for. According to a profile of her in The Daily Beast, Cate put “a lot of time, blood, sweat, and tears into [Edwards’ presidential] campaign.” She believed in him, and an anonymous family friend noted that Cate has remained close with her father, despite his shortcomings, which now apparently include a complex cover-up in which $925,000 in illicit campaign contributions from two moneyed supporters was allegedly channeled to Rielle Hunter — Edwards’ former campaign videographer-cum-mistress and the mother of his daughter, now 3 — and campaign staffer Andrew Young, who claimed the baby was his in order to protect Edwards, his boss.
After being indicted, Edwards declared his innocence to a gaggle of reporters. “I have done wrong,” he said. “And I take full responsibility for having done wrong. And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused to others. But I did not break the law. And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.”
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After her first year of law school, Cate interned for NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who called her “enormously competent and calm” in times of stress. Like her mother, Cate apparently has a knack for comforting others. She did that after her mother’s death, “taking that leadership role…to bring her family through this.” And she’s playing the part again now, with her presence elevating the concept of parental-induced humiliation to a new and unfortunate level.
Cate Edwards has tried to live a low-key life out of the spotlight. But reality hasn’t cooperated. Her father’s campaigns, her mother’s breast cancer, the public denials of an affair and a child and then the humiliating confirmation combined to make the Edwards family fodder for tabloid journalism and the more respected variety.
“Everything is so public in that family,” noted Grace Christ, a professor of social work at Columbia University and author of Healing Children’s Grief: Surviving a Parent’s Death from Cancer, after Elizabeth Edwards’ death.
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Elizabeth Edwards knew a thing or two about courage. After her death, I wrote:
She may have been referring to the challenges of parenthood when she posted on her Facebook page the day before she died that “there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human.”
On Friday, Cate Edwards summoned an uncanny amount of strength and patience to stand by her father. Despite the circumstances, her mother would have been proud.