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Critic's Notebook: Elizabeth Edwards opens up to Oprah

May 7, 2009 |  7:00 pm

Oprah290 It’s so easy to judge these days isn’t it? What with Bristol Palin running around preaching against premarital sex and disgraced politicians attaching themselves to reality shows, it’s easy to surrender to our baser natures and moralize. It’s like they’re practically inviting our contempt, or at least some serious snarkiness. 

So Elizabeth Edwards goes on “Oprah,” or rather invites Oprah to her and John’s “dream house,” and we know exactly what’s going to happen. With her sympathetic eyes and soothingly familiar voice, Oprah will gently but firmly lead Elizabeth Edwards around the loud and crowded show ring, then through a modified obstacle course of public soul-baring. Elizabeth has a book to pitch, called “Resilience,” a fitting enough title for a woman who has lost a child, been diagnosed with incurable cancer and, last year, watched as her husband was outed as a lying adulterer by the tabloids.  No doubt she has much to say about the perils of mortality and life in politics but she’s been in the public eye long enough to know which of these is her media lead (hint: it isn’t the cancer).

Thursday’s interview was, unsurprisingly, much touted by Harpo Productions and, just as unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Edwards was immediately taken to task by some for bringing the whole sordid business back into the cultural conversation. As the interview began, that criticism seemed valid enough. It was all so tediously familiar. Oprah arrived in her big Oprah car, the whole family piled out and pretended to be happy that Mom was about to go on national television to talk about what must have been a fairly horrible year in the Edwards' dream house. The house was duly admired, and John sheepishly agreed to “be around” before hustling the children away so the two women could get down to business. 

No one is better at these sorts of interviews than Winfrey, but Elizabeth Edwards was clearly in control.  Her only stated limitation was that Rielle Hunter, her husband’s former lover, not be named, but her answers to questions about the length and nature of the affair and especially about Hunter’s child were as politically and pointedly vague as some of her husband’s early responses to the charges. "He's talked to me about questions people ask and things like that he doesn't know anything more than I know about this"  was her answer when Oprah asked if she had asked John whether he was the father. “It doesn't change anything,” she repeated flatly when asked if she even wanted to know. 

Which isn’t to say Elizabeth didn’t “dish.”  She obligingly reiterated what she had written in the book — that John first told her he had had a one-night “indiscretion’ three days after he announced his presidential candidacy, that she didn’t learn it was much more than that for almost a year, that she had screamed and vomited when she found out, that she wondered if it was because she wasn’t attractive enough (it must be said that the lime green top and granny shoes she wore for the interview may not have been the best choice available), that she didn’t know whether she could ever trust him again. 

But for all her cutting comments about Hunter -- "I've never known this sort of person before" -- Elizabeth Edwards' anger played fairly cold.  It wasn’t until about midway through the interview when she began talking about her love for her husband and her view of their life together that things got interesting. Agreeing that the cancer gave her a certain perspective — “Life is going to be less long and I don’t want to spend it fighting” — she spoke passionately about the fact that in 30 years of marriage, through some of the worst tragedies a couple can endure,  John had always been by her side, and how that made it difficult to allow the adultery to become the defining moment.  She wasn't making excuses for him -- her disappointment in him as a husband and a man is very clear -- but while her attitude toward adultery seems fairly sophomoric -- "I have no idea why he did it" was as deep as her insight got -- her thoughts about marriage seemed much more interesting. She also spoke movingly, albeit briefly, of their son Wade’s death and how it made her own death less frightening and “a relief.” 

But time was running out and the house, with its full-sized gymnasium and indoor dog run, had to be admired and John brought painfully into the conversation to offer his full support to the book and admit that he had indeed been afraid Elizabeth would leave him when it all hit the fan. Then Oprah offered her benediction — “there has been so much love between you” — and was gone, leaving Elizabeth to prepare for the next round of interviews and the rest of us wondering why it is we want to hear salacious and painful details from a woman who seems to have some actual wisdom to dispense.

-- Mary McNamara

(Photo courtesy AP)