Pat Nixon was a hapless figure who predeceased her disgraced former president husband by less than a year. Joan Kennedy, who like the former first lady neither sought nor was particularly capable of the political role thrust on her, was driven to drink and eventually divorced Ted Kennedy.
But there may be no more tragic story of a politician's wife in recent years than that of Elizabeth Edwards, who died yesterday at age 61 after the cancer that had ravaged her body for over six years was no longer treatable.
Unlike Pat Nixon, Joan Kennedy and countless other politicians' spouses, Elizabeth Edwards didn't just encourage husband John Edwards' quest for the White House. She was the gasoline that fueled his ambitions, she contributed to her husband's phony public persona, and she opted for politics over family when it became obvious that he was having an affair with a campaign videographer and had fathered her child.
That Elizabeth Edwards chose to be complicitous in that open secret should not diminish our grief for a woman who was a loving mother to four children, one of whom was taken from her in a car crash, became a symbol of resilience and determination for cancer sufferers, and campaigned tirelessly for health-care reform. But as callous as it may be to some people, pretending that a complicity which defined the closing years of her life did not exist in looking back on that life would be irresponsible.
I cannot help but wonder if the pain Elizabeth Edwards felt as the last chapter of her life is written would not have been at least somewhat assuaged if she hadn't made so many bad choices.
Chief among those bad choices, of course, was opting for prestige and power over fidelity.