Facing Death Politically

The recent sad report of Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer recurrence has been headline news. She was diagnosed during the 2004 presidential campaign as her husband John Edwards ran with John Kerry against Cheney and Bush. Her husband is now running for the 2008 presidential election, and the Edwards couple called a press conference to announce that despite the return of her breast cancer they would continue the presidential race. Political commentary fed furiously on whether this was a proper decision and whether it would hurt or help Edwards’ chances.

Sam Donaldson on a Sunday morning press show opined that the issue was really politics and he thought it would damage Edwards.

Aside from having to play out a painful scene publically, and aside from touching love and courage on the Edwards’ part, the episode foregrounds the real political pressure to repress the unpleasant and to assume immortal demeanor.

Millions of people every day face such terrible realities for themselves and relatives. Their stories are mostly unreported unless people are ‘newsworthy.’ Political decorum in the US requires reticence about affliction; the style is plucky and confident, not conscious of or facing mortality. When Grover Cleveland required cancer surgery he was covertly spirited to the hospital and his health situation was completely hidden for fear it would shake the stock market. The press never showed Roosevelt in his wheel chair. Kennedy kept his Addison’s disease secret. For many complex reasons presidential health has often been veiled. This is probably totemic: the leader must look strong and uncompromised by personal or familial vulnerability. Priests in Leviticus are required to be ‘whole’ in their bodies. Crushed testicles exclude ordination.

Politics constrains a similar whole and hardy-looking style.

The Edwards already have a more qualified style because tragedy touched them and became part of their story. They lost a teenage son in a car accident and Mrs. Edwards had two more children (at 48 and 50) to bring new life to their family. Commentators, in addition to actively wondering how long she has, speculate that her cancer recurrence is a wild card which may derail Edwards’ presidential chances. People speculate he’ll be distracted and unable to perform.

Elizabeth Edwards announced her condition as incurable but manageable and she publically hopes to continue for many years. Statistics are averages. She hopes to be one of the long-lived numbers.

As no one knows he or she won’t be struck by a car or felled suddenly by a fatal disease, the fatalism about odds seems slightly odd. Donaldson’s remarks may however be accurate because the American political posture is relentlessly upbeat. Negative doesn’t sell. Politics eschews death in elections while at the same time requiring death-dealing power in electees. Elected politicians talk tough on crime, hawkish against enemies, and pro-military solutions. These are required postures. Politicians perform classic American ambivalence: positive confident innocent personas willing to wreak disaster to assure positive confident futures through infliction of violence and death.

Political discussion of the Iraq War often shows the same dissociated quality-as though the issues weren’t violent destruction, death and mutilation, but only honor and face and democracy. The fighting is for most off-scene, over there rather than here. Coverage is clipped like movie cuts. Americans criticize the long, violent scenes broadcast by Al-Jazeera. The rest of the world sees something of the horror which for most Americans is still astonishingly sanitized.

Denial about the realities of war and wounds and destruction folds together not only belief in violence, callousness and bloodlust, but also wild abstract desires to help. Political personas have to address all these elements in varying emphases, and politicians endlessly promise a better future and to get all this unpleasantness behind us. Politics operates on what Philip Slater dubbed the American toilet bowl assumption-disappearing unpleasant waste. We can flush away undesirables. Political style for leaders not only disappears the unpleasant it cheerfully transcends it. So actual spousal sickness and death are too sobering for “politics” as Donaldson and many others see it.

When Elizabeth Edwards said simply that we all die, that she accepts that and want to live fully until it happens, she uttered not only her own considerable courage. She also uttered a useful rebuke to the political delusion that surrounds the mask of presidential and national power. As the bell tolls for her, she reminds us it tolls for us all. We are all waiting to die. We might live better if we acknowledged it, if we said not just we are strong and can kill, but we are weak and shall die.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu



DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu