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Greenfield: When Fate steps into the political arena

Story Highlights

• John Edwards announced Thursday his wife's cancer has returned
• Elizabeth Edwards has cancer in right rib; doctor says prognosis is good
• Edwards plans to continue campaign for Democratic presidential nomination
By Jeff Greenfield
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(CNN) -- "Do you want to hear God laugh? Make a plan."

That old piece of folk wisdom carries with it an unsettling truth that anyone who is past the age of innocence -- about 4 in today's world -- will recognize.

We fret over the most minute details of our lives, stressing over critical decisions (plasma or LCD for that HDTV? Italian or Asian for that weekend dinner?) while Fate's kindest or cruelest blows are utterly beyond our vision or control.

Nowhere is that more dramatically shown than in the world of politics. The men and women who enter that arena are almost always people of intense will and determination. They are in that arena because they believe deeply -- in ideas, or in their own capacity to lead.

And in the white-hot heat of a presidential campaign, their intensity touches everyone around them. Sleep, relaxation, diversion are past memories or future hopes.

What matters now is the plan, the schedule, the strategy. Who gets to ride with the candidate from the plane to the reception; who stands behind her? What music does the band play (don't give the press a story with a song whose lyrics are controversial). What food gets served at the fundraiser? Are the pamphlets printed in a union shop on recycled paper?

And then Fate steps in -- and reminds us of one of life's most ineluctable truths.

The Edwards family has had more than its share of hammer blows, from the death of a son in a car crash, to Elizabeth's breast cancer diagnosis that came in the weeks before the election loss in 2004.

John Edwards has been running again for president almost from the moment that last campaign ended, encouraged by the good news about his wife's health -- news that took a grimmer turn this week.

It is, unhappily, far from the worst example of campaigns affected, or suddenly ended, by bad tidings. We've seen presidential candidates killed (Robert Kennedy) or disabled (George Wallace) by gunfire. We've seen an astonishingly long line of prominent political figures killed in airplane crashes: Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002; Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in 2000; Virginia GOP Senate nominee Richard Obenshain in 1978 (that's why John Warner wound up in the Senate); Missouri Democratic Senate nominee Jerry Litton in 1976; House Majority Leader Hale Boggs in 1972.

Cancer cut short former Vice President Hubert Humphrey's political career in 1978; lymphoma ended the life of former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas.

With luck, Elizabeth Edwards will be at her husband's side for many years to come; and his political fate will be determined by the strength of his candidacy, not the health of his wife. (If the affection of the political community -- including an often dyspeptic press corps -- is a source of strength, she will be just fine.)

But the news out of North Carolina today is one more reminder that no one -- not even those of accomplishment, wealth, and power -- is immune from the forces that are simply beyond our control.

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