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Hard-learned lessons drive rival campaigns

WASHINGTON -- Before leaving his native North Carolina to claim the Democratic vice presidential nomination in Boston, John Edwards visited the grave of his son Wade, who died in a car accident in 1996 at age 16.

The next day, amid the cheers of smiling delegates and a Democratic throng that included his own proud parents, Edwards began his acceptance speech by saying he and his wife, Elizabeth, had been ''blessed with four beautiful children: Wade, Cate, Emma Claire, and Jack," leaving unsaid what some in the FleetCenter already knew -- that Wade had passed away.

And yet Wade was present at last week's Democratic National Convention, and so was the late first husband of Teresa Heinz Kerry, Senator John Heinz III of Pennsylvania. And so were the friends and Navy colleagues of John F. Kerry who perished in Vietnam. When reporters tried to interview Kerry about his good friend from Yale, Richard Pershing, who died in the Vietnam War, the senator could barely speak.

Pershing, Heinz, Wade Edwards, and the others were present in the memories of those claiming the party's nominations and their spouses and, especially, in the nominees' expressed understanding of the limits of self-control and mortality -- the ''wisdom" in the Kerry-Edwards promise of ''strength and wisdom."

''I will wage war with the lessons I learned in war," said Kerry in his acceptance speech. ''Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: 'I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice.' "

The sense that Vietnam casualties were not justified by the war's aims saturated Kerry's letters home from that period.

''I am empty, bitter, angry, and desperately lost with nothing but war, violence, and more war around me," Kerry wrote to his parents. ''I just don't believe that it was meant to be this cruel and senseless -- that anyone could possibly get near to Persh to take his life. What a God-damn total waste. Why? I was on watch on the bridge when the executive officer came over and asked me if I had a friend called Pershing. I knew immediately it was all over but even when I read the telegram it took moments to sink in. Then I just walked off the bridge and cried -- a pathetic and very empty kind of crying that turned into anger and bitterness."

John and Wade Edwards were an unusually close father-son team, ''joined at the breastbone," as John Edwards put it. In March 1996, the Jeep Cherokee Wade was driving was struck by a powerful gust of wind; when Wade steered sharply to the right to correct for it, the car flipped and rolled. Wade was crushed.

Edwards does not speak publicly about Wade's death. Elizabeth Edwards describes a sense of desolation that overwhelmed their lives and eventually led the couple to have more children to bring joy back into their home; the Edwardses continue to host Wade's friends at their home as a way of keeping his spirit alive.

When former senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska recruited Edwards to run for the Senate in 1998, Kerrey warned him that campaigns can be brutal. ''John looked at me and said, 'If you've ever had to get up on a medical examiner's table and hug your son goodbye, you know that there's nothing worse that can happen to you,' " Kerrey told the Globe's Patrick Healy last year.

For Teresa Heinz Kerry, who met her first husband in Switzerland in 1962, her happy life ended suddenly in 1991, when Senator Heinz died in an air crash over a Philadelphia suburb. A helicopter had gone close to view the stuck landing gear of the small plane in which Heinz was riding; the rotors touched the wing of the plane and both aircraft plummeted to the ground.

Today, Heinz's widow talks about him all the time -- almost as often as she talks about her current husband -- but that may not be so surprising; talking about Heinz is her way of affirming his presence in her life even as she commits herself to her current marriage.

''You never stop loving the people that died," she told Time magazine two weeks ago.

President Bush, Kerry's Republican rival, experienced a different kind of turning point. In the lowest moment of his life, he committed himself to halting his drinking and reinvesting in his marriage. His rise to the White House began that day; the discipline and doggedness that he discovered while quitting alcohol are visible in the conduct of his presidency. His belief that the Almighty guides his actions also traces, in part, to that day.

Many of those who achieve great success by seizing control of personal vices learn that sheer willpower can drive them to achieve the seemingly impossible. Many of those who suffer from inexplicable losses learn that even the tightest self-control cannot alter the world outside them.

These two shards of personal wisdom, so different in so many ways, are driving the 2004 election.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond. 

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