Elizabeth Edwards: "We Should Not Matter"
The Citizen, the newsletter of the KSG, interviewed Elizabeth during her visit. They are now just getting around to publishing it. She was asked about her influence as a spouse with voters on the campaign trail, media reform, and being a parent on the campaign trail.
Q: You’ve now done a presidential campaign twice. Has the role of a candidate’s spouse has changed?
The people who broke the mold on campaigning [as the spouse of a presidential candidate] are people that nobody ever thinks about: Betty Ford and Roslyn Carter. Roslyn Carter would go out and sit in the kitchens of people in Iowa and talk about the price of fertilizer. We didn’t have CSPAN or other things that followed her around and got to see that this was what she was doing, but she did a lot of that-campaigning without [her husband]. Betty Ford doing the same thing, campaigning and being out there and speaking her own mind.
I think spouses are nearly irrelevant. I don’t want to say totally irrelevant.
But can you really make a positive difference? Probably not.
Then EE pauses with this question:
And should you make a difference at all? I think no. I think you’re role is so minimal, largely ceremonial. You can take on issues, but the likelihood of a presidential first spouse taking on a truly controversial issue-reading, literacy, childhood vaccination, beautifying our highways-this is the stuff of first ladies. We’re not talking about anything that’s truly groundbreaking. So what difference does it make?
I had a slightly different bent. I was interested in military families, having come from one. But that’s not controversial. So why in the world should I matter? Or Michelle [Obama] or Cindy [McCain]? We should not matter. We’re picking the leader of the free world and yet there’s this fascination [with the candidate’s spouses]. It’s this celebrity culture. … I expect a tremendous fixation on it. When we’re making this choice I think is really counter-productive.
Q: In your Forum address, you were pretty critical of the media for putting entertainment ahead of substance. Do you think that part of the problem with the media is more of a demand problem? The analogy that comes to mind is, everyone wants a Big Mac even though they know it’s bad for them. And we have a public that wants to find out the latest on Britney Spears. So how do you disentangle what people want from what they should want?
A: I think a lot reasons people eat a Big Mac as opposed to a salad is because they can drive through and get the Big Mac and eat it while they drive. And they can’t eat the salad. If somebody put a salad out in front of them, people might eat that instead. But we make it very easy to eat the Big Mac, very hard to eat the salad. And therefore people make the choices that they do.
We make it very hard to get really good information about candidates or about issues, certainly on investigative things, and very easy to hear about what’s happening with Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or-and this is the most incredible to me-Anna Nicole Smith is sort of a freakish kind of character. Not a major star in any way. Yet we spend how many hours of certainly the cable news time and also on the national news on who is the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby? A completely useless piece of information about a completely minor character on the waterfront. Is that because that’s what we asked for? I’ve heard the press say it in embarrassed tones, “We wouldn’t be doing this kind of coverage if that’s not what people wanted,” but I’m flipping channels and I got nothing but Anna Nicole Smith!
Amen, Elizabeth. The next question was about ratings, so what should the media do? Elizabeth couched her answer more in terms of real journalism:
I want journalists nationwide to stand up and say, “That’s it. We’re going to be serious journalists. … We are not going to do this stuff anymore. You can hire some jacklight person.” And for the rest of us to say, “As long as Charmin is advertising the Anna Nicole Smith trial, I’m not buying Charmin.”… But I do think we need to at some point say “This is too important an issue.” We’re not going to get the general public to do it. So it’s probably going to require journalists to say, “I cannot, will not, be a part of this.” … I do think that there are some efforts to change the landscape. But there are still too many people who get their news from the network news. And the network news is just sorry. … I actually quit watching the national network news. Unless I know my husband is going to be on the national network news, I don’t watch it. I find it boring. I’ll watch [the NewsHour with Jim] Lehrer and I’ll watch BBC.I know what she means. I hardly ever watch Network News, or Cable News. I get mine mainly from C-SPAN.
You can read the rest of the interview here.
I seldom disagree with Elizabeth, but this is one of the few times I will.
She mattered. Or else John McCain wouldn't have taken a cheap shot this morning at her criticism of his health care plan.