Having to bear a personal tragedy is, alone, hard enough. How much harder it must be to do so under klieg lights.
There was no good way for John and Elizabeth Edwards to spin the news that her cancer had returned. It wasn't politics. It wasn't a poll. It wasn't the flubbed hiring of a blogger. It was a matter of life and death.
Elizabeth Edwards' cancer has metastasized. The form the cancer has taken cannot be cured, only controlled. And the statistics suggest she will not live more than a few years and that pain will be a constant companion to a ceaseless series of procedures and treatments.
Yet people of all political stripes can respect the grace with which John and Elizabeth Edwards went before the cameras to deliver the bad news to millions of strangers and to tell his supporters that his run for the presidency would go on.
It isn't the first tragedy the couple has confronted. Eleven years ago, their 16-year-old son, Wade, died in an auto accident. That cathartic experience prompted John to leave his legal practice and run for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina.
Successful politicians by definition aren't quitters. Their families are accustomed to uncomfortable sacrifices. So it's easy to understand how the initial impulse of John and Elizabeth Edwards after the dreaded diagnosis was not to let a disease alter their lives and to stay on the campaign trail.
No one should criticize John Edwards for staying in the race. Few people can conceive of the painful process that brought him and his wife to that decision.
You can imagine the words of two people who love each other, of John telling Elizabeth that nothing is more important than she is, that he would do anything, give up everything, to help her and be with her. And you can hear Elizabeth telling him in return that nothing is more important to her and to the nation than for him to continue the campaign.
And while that decision is understandable and even admirable, John Edwards should reconsider, for two reasons one family, one political, both related.
This is not to suggest that when a terminal disease is diagnosed, an individual's life immediately ends or that a couple's world should stop and a spouse should quit his or her job. "Either you push forward with the things that you were doing yesterday," Elizabeth Edwards told Katie Couric on "60 Minutes," "or you start dying."
But a presidential campaign is not a normal job or an everyday thing. The demands on time and the requirement for incessant travel mean that for the next 11 months, at least, John Edwards will be away from his family at a time when his wife and two young children need him most.
John Edwards, at 53, can get back those 11 months on the campaign trail in 2011 or 2015. He can never replace the limited time he has left with his wife. He can never restore the missing moments with his children.
And while voters may recognize the strength and resilience required to persevere politically in the face of personal tragedy, they may show greater respect for a politician who has the fortitude and the virtue to walk away from public life when the obligations of family beckon.
The desire to win at all costs and the craving to possess and maintain power irradiate the nation's diseased political culture. In the harsh glare of that blinding ambition, John Edwards has a rare opportunity to cast real family values in sharp relief.
John and Elizabeth Edwards made the difficult and brave decision to try to continue the normal trajectory of their lives despite her illness. In more than one sense, it may have been the most therapeutic choice. Normal for them, since 2004, is campaigning for the White House.
With the passage of time, they may make the even more difficult and brave decision to seek health and wellness in the community of their family and friends rather than in the company of strangers on the campaign trail.