NOTIONS: The benefits of choosing leaders shaken by mortality

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A client wanted to meet for lunch at Nordstrom. I was cutting through the cosmetics department when I spotted the TV.

Presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth were on CNN. The sound was off, but their body language, facial expres
sions and the headings at the bottom of the screen told the story: Her breast cancer has recurred. It’s in the bone. It’s treatable but incurable. They’re optimistic. And by her and his choice, the campaign goes on.

The announcement triggered dark memories: My wife Pam’s cancer recurrence. The doctors telling us conventional treatments wouldn’t work. Sharing that sad news with our family, friends and colleagues. Deciding (out of our sense of obligation to others and a stubborn refusal to let cancer win) to keep working at our jobs despite a heavy treatment regimen and frequent trips to Houston. The slow-but-steady progression of the disease through Pam’s lungs, lymph system and hip. The physical and psychological burden for her. The emotional wear on me. The anxiety, uncertainty and fear for everyone in our personal and professional lives. The crashing wave of cancer’s vic
tory. The undertow of grief.

Suddenly, I wasn’t hungry.

The next morning, my friend Laura sent me an e-mail. The subject line read: “Edwards.”

“So, should he pull out of the race?” She asked. “Figured you’d have an opinion.”

I wrote back:

“At the time Pam and I were in the Edwards’ shoes, we made pretty much the same decision: ‘Even if the doctors say this isn’t beatable, we’re different. The odds may not be in our favor, but there are always exceptions, so why not us? And hey, we’re not gonna sit around feeling sorry for ourselves or defining ourselves by cancer. We’re super people. We can fight this and keep doing all we do for all the good people who depend on us.’ And we tried.

“In hindsight, I wish we’d spent less time at Hetrick Communications, the IRT, the neighborhood association, etc., and taken more time to talk, and travel, and hold hands, and share feelings, and write, and say goodbye (in case there had to be one) and … well, you get the picture.

“I think the Edwards’ are making a noble mistake, and I think he could potentially be a good president, and I may even write him a check to thank him for keeping on. But I wish he’d wait, because whatever the outcome, this is going to suck the life out of her, and him and them. And as they know from having lost a son and moved on, there’s a lot more living to
do on the other side of the struggle.”

I also e-mailed my friends Ted and Jane to see what they thought of the Edwards’ decision. Jane, a teacher, has been battling two kinds of cancer simultaneously, one in her bones, and just recently returned to part-time classroom work.

Ted replied:

“Jane and I talked some about it over the weekend. One of our concerns was that, even if Elizabeth’s health was OK during the campaign, chances are not that good that she would survive through his presidency. We’re not sure it would be good or fair for the country to have a president who would necessarily be preoccupied with his wife’s illness or distraught over her death.”

But while there’s merit in the concerns of those who’ve been there and done that, there’s another side to the story.

We’re all going to die someday. So are those we love. And we’re all at risk that an auto accident, a malignant cell, an overdose, a plane crash, a terrorist attack, a downed electrical line or some other mishap or malady will bring that about sooner than expected.

The people we elect aren’t and can’t be immune from serious illness and mortality in their circle of life. In fact, given the kinds
of decisions they must make and the effect on human hearts and lives, we’d be wellserved if more candidates and officeholders had been shaken to the core at some point in their lives, giving them a chance to grow, and giving us a chance to see how they respond, recover and persevere.

As the U.S. presidency becomes an increasingly expensive proposition, we run the risk that only people of privilege-people toooften isolated from many of life’s soul-strengthening challenges-will be able to afford the battle.

In John Edwards, I see a man who’s emerged from working-class poverty. In Elizabeth and John Edwards, I see a couple who responded to the death of a child not in
the all-too-common way (breaking apart), but in a most remarkable way: Bringing two new children into the world. And now, I see in John and Elizabeth Edwards a couple cognizant of what could befall them, steeled by past grief, and still saying “Let’s fight on for what we believe in.”

If that’s a disqualification from the presidency, I live in the wrong country.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at or send e-mail to

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