As mentioned earlier, this week's NY Magazine published a meaty excerpt from Game Change, the salacious new tell-all on the 2008 election, whose authors describe "a gap between public façade and private reality." Code: Elizabeth Edwards is a bitch:
It's quite a page-turner, as you'd expect. But whereas it purports to turn on their ear the one-dimensional stereotypes by which we view the Edwardses, "Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster" just gives us another set of stock characters. Now, it would be a mistake to say that just the women get the worst of it, because in point of fact Edwards goes, in the course of 500 words, from a considerate and genuine person to "a callow, shallow phony," a silent-movie sleaze, drunk on power and abusive to underlings. Rielle Hunter, as usual, is portrayed as a zany nutjob - with an extra emphasis on her "shockingly inappropriate" manner towards men, and her overt sexuality, to an "obsession" with Edwards. ("An H that could have stood for "honey" or for "hussy," but either way stood for "Hunter.")
And then there's Elizabeth - who, far from the saint we all imagine, is in fact a monster! If losing a child and bearing up nobly under illness make one a female icon, reads the subtext, well, cursing and riding her staff hard suggest exactly the converse - and there is, apparently, nothing in between. I'm more than willing to believe that Elizabeth Edwards' deification was phony, not to say creepy, given its basis in suffering: I'm also willing to believe that she's a lousy boss. But there is something deeply troubling about deifying a woman for things that happened to her, however horrible, while excoriating her for what she actually does. (And keeping in mind that Jenny Sanford is currently one of the "most intriguing people of the year.") And however bad-tempered a manager she is, the characterization of her staffers as so traumatized by their interactions that "they felt like battered spouses" must raise eyebrows. We hear anecdotes of Elizabeth belittling her husband's intellect and calling him "a hick" (emasculation: check.) We hear that "she routinely unleashed profanity-laced tirades on conference calls" and "snarled" curses in the course of running a campaign. (Lack of femininity: check.) She's tyrannical with a group of young staffers - "mostly kids in their twenties being paid next to nothing" - whose health care she threatens to suspend out of spite. (Unmaternal: check, check.) And, oh yeah, she's crazy-emotional:
At the terminal, the couple fought in the passenger waiting area. They fought outside in the parking lot. Elizabeth was sobbing, out of control, incoherent. As their aides tried to avert their eyes, she tore off her blouse, exposing herself. "Look at me!" she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground.
Lest you not get the idea, an accompanying picture, resembling a stylized comic-book illustration, portrays a crazed Elizabeth rending the garment and exposing her suffering femininity to the appalled staffers, a character out of Sophocles undone by hubris and betraying her sex. The comic-book art is apt: these characters are drawn in broad strokes and primary colors. Heroes! And villains! And politicians who are - shocker! - not exactly what they seem! Whited sepulchres are always good on a Monday, but there's a lot to be said for shades of gray.