Pretty much everyone likes Elizabeth Edwards. She is warm and whip-smart, and during a long, tough, and mean campaign season, Edwards was always a popular presence. A former navy brat who lived in Japan, she attended college and law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she met John Edwards, and then went on to work in the state’s attorney general’s office, at a private law firm, and at the UNC Law School before becoming one of her husband’s closest advisors. Recently diagnosed with breast cancer, Edwards is focused on getting better and making the move back home to North Carolina, where Senator Edwards will be heading up a new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill. She spoke with Campus Progress about her family, campus politics, chemical plant safety, and her love of the blogosphere.
CP: How are you feeling?
EE: I’m feeling pretty good. Tomorrow’s the last chemotherapy so I feel like I’ve got two more weeks of downhill and then uphill.
CP: Happy Valentine’s Day! Any plans?
EE: The truth is, I look really lousy so John said I could pick the restaurant and he’d go out and get something and we’d have dinner here. This morning John made pancakes for the kids and cut them into heart shapes and we left them cards and everything. And then he made me eggs and cut those into hearts too.
CP: Are you excited to leave D.C. for North Carolina? What will you miss?
EE: Since nearly everybody here works in politics, it is nice that you can have a conversation about the things you care about with nearly anyone that you’re standing in line next to at the grocery store, I will miss that sort of stimulation. But I’m going to like moving back where there is a better mix, where people’s lives revolve around soccer games and teacher assignments and the kinds of things that occupied my life before.
CP: When you return to North Carolina, what issues will you be working on? Will you be involved with the UNC Center at all?
EE: I hope to be involved with the center because I care a lot about those issues but I don’t know what role I would have. I know that my first priority will be working at after school programs and on education issues through the foundation [the Wade Edwards Foundation, named for their deceased son]. I’m one of those people where there’s nothing that doesn’t interest me so whatever the latest topic is I always have some idea of what we can do to bring attention to it. But after school programs have been a primary interest for me for a decade or so.
Another issue I would like to work on is chemical plant safety. I don’t expect this administration to do anything further besides voluntary requirements for chemical plants. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how dangerous they are, how vulnerable they are to attack and I’ve thought about ways we could draw attention to the issue so we could mobilize public opinion because that is the only way we are going to get any recourse from the government to regulate.
Q: Is that a big issue in North Carolina?
A: We’re not a big chemical state. I’ve been thinking about trying to work on this issue in Ohio because there are a lot of chemical plants there, they could kill a million people if they were successfully attacked. I think if you mobilize Ohio, the Republicans will pay attention.
CP: What would you say to the young progressives who might be feeling discouraged now?
EE: You know, my first election was 1972. I remember it was a very tough night. Afterwards, I felt like I had been working so hard trying to make a difference and it didn’t make any difference. We had Nixon and we had Agnew who had made it his occupation to go after young people. You really felt like you had no effect. But the truth of the matter is, what we created was an enormous number of energized and organized people who later became the generation that put Bill Clinton in office and became our generation of leaders. There are going to be discouraging steps and that’s just the nature of politics. But sometimes those discouraging days really do create the groundwork for accomplishing something later.
CP: I read that your father was very involved in ROTC on your college campus, UNC-Chapel Hill, during the Vietnam War what was that like?
EE: My dad was actually the head of the Navy ROTC program at Chapel Hill. He had previously been head of all Navy ROTC programs and he used to come home with his head in his hands and say, you know, the protestors bombed Michigan, they burned something in the ROTC unit at Berkeley. He was trying to navigate a course, dad was a good Democrat and he was not intolerant about the protests and so he would not do anything to provoke people, he just tried to keep his head down and do his job. And for me, since my last name at the time was Anania and it was pretty unique, everybody that I came in contact with knew my connection with my father. I would warn them to lay low if there was a campus protest coming their way.
CP: What impact did the draft have on your college campus?
EE: I think the draft made an enormous difference in people’s lives. It engaged a population of people, people who might not normally be concerned with what was happening overseas because they didn’t see any personal risks. But then, the draft was out there. When I was in college they did the lottery. If you want to find a galvanizing moment among young people it was the lottery. Even if you managed to get a high number, your roommates, your suitemates could have a low number and so everybody was effected by that moment and it made it personal for people.
CP: What new challenges do you see for young people in college now?
EE: Well, I know this from talking to my daughter Cate. A lot of times on the campaign trail, she would say that she felt she was part of the first generation that was looking towards a worse life than their parents as opposed to a better life. That’s not what we’re supposed to be about. And that changes your attitude, your perspective, your optimism about your own future. People might be feeling a little hopeless in terms of their possibilities of success or the pressures of diminished opportunities, she feels like people are just putting more attention on their own personal success as opposed to focusing on communal success.
CP: How is Cate doing?
EE: She’s in NY now, she expects to go to law school in a few years. She’s working right now as an editorial assistant at Vanity Fair.
CP: Have you gone to visit her?
EE: I have, and she’s got a couple of roommates from college and there’s three of them in a six floor walk-up. I don’t like to walk all the way up there that often because that’s a lot of steps for an old lady. And of course, I was going through chemotherapy, so when we moved her in, I had to literally drop her and her stuff at the sidewalk.
CP: I hear you are an internet news junkie. What’s in your media diet?
EE: After the recent election I’ve been spending a lot of time on channels that have to do with garden landscaping because it was just easier for me, less heartburn. I just get very frustrated listening to mainstream media, like they will report that the new budget increases money for Pell Grants. I just want to say, I beg your pardon? They’re cutting off 90,000 people from those grants, and it isn’t even part of the discussion.
I do listen to CSPAN in the car and Air American and Talk Left radio. I read the Washington Post and the New York Times. But I go to a lot of websites, I spend a lot of time on the internet. I get a lot of information from blogs, I have a whole list including Talking Points, Daily Kos, Democratic Underground and more. Sometimes I check out the right wing sites to see what they are talking about. I have a whole folder of sites and I open them all up every day and see what catches my eye.
CP: Any interest in being the next Wonkette?
EE: No. I don’t think I could do a blog everyday. You can’t just put up something every few days, you have to be really attentive to it and I don’t have that sort of time or energy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t participate. Sometimes I would post on blogs not under my real name.
CP: So you’re a secret blogger?
EE: Well, I used to do that. And no, I won’t tell you what sites I did it on. But I had to stop doing that after John started running. Now I sometimes participate under my own name. I participate in blogs and newsgroups – not just political ones but other issues too. I initially went to graduate school for English, so I am part of some newsgroups on the use of the English language, like alt.englishusage, people just love to argue about everything on that one!