EDITOR’S NOTE: When John Kerry picked North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate, he chose the man generally conceded to be the most skilled campaigner in the Democratic field today. Earlier this year, when Edwards was chasing the Democratic presidential nomination, National Review’s Byron York followed the campaign through South Carolina and tried to answer the burning question: Is Edwards a phony?
Greenville, S.C., January 29–John Edwards has a serious look on his face. He’s a few seconds away from taking the stage at the Allen Temple AME Church, and for a moment he looks almost, well, normal. Then his name is announced and BAM!–Edwards puts on a huge smile, bounds up the stairs, faces the crowd, and thrusts his hands in the air, thumbs up, radiating energy and enthusiasm. After a brief I’m-honored-to-be-here-with-you-today, he’s off on his standard stump speech, picked up by the wireless microphone he wears on his tie. “The truth is, we live in an America where there are two different Americas,” Edwards begins. “There’s one for all those families who have everything they need, they never have to worry about a thing, and then there’s one for everybody else.”
The America for everybody else, as described by Edwards, is a pretty awful place. People can’t get health care, can’t pay the rent, can’t even dream of buying a house. Children go hungry. College is not even a remote possibility.
As Edwards talks, he shrugs his shoulders, sighs, and holds his palms outstretched in a “Can you believe it?” gesture. When he says, “Think about it! In a country of our wealth, to have children going to bed hungry!” he looks toward the ground, shaking his head in a mixture of sorrow and disbelief. When he offers a solution–”You and I can change it, we can build one America!”–he brightens and pounds his fist in the air to show his determination.
Edwards’s showmanship has led to a running debate in the political world. Simply put, the question is: Is Edwards a phony? Or is he speaking from the heart? Of course it’s impossible to know what Edwards feels inside. But it is possible to say this: He does a very good job of looking like a phony.
The problem is not the theme of the “Two Americas” speech, which is a standard, if highly polished, recitation of the “people versus the powerful” appeal that didn’t work for Al Gore in 2000. Instead, it’s the little things that don’t sound quite right. There is, for example, the story about the house in the mill village. Edwards tells South Carolina audiences that he’s one of them, and knows what it’s like to come from humble beginnings. “I was born in South Carolina,” he says. “My parents brought me home to a mill village. My father worked in a mill all his life. I will never forget where I came from.” In case anyone misses the point, at most appearances, the sound system blares out John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” with its lyrics, “I cannot forget where it is that I come from . . .”
But the story is slightly more complicated than that. After his birth, Edwards’s parents did indeed bring him home to a mill village; in TV and print ads, the campaign has often used pictures of the tiny house where the family lived. But the ads don’t mention that Edwards lived in the house from the time of his birth until he was . . . one year old. By then, his father had been promoted at the mill and the family moved to a much nicer home. That house does not appear in Edwards’s commercials.
That doesn’t mean the family was well off, or that Edwards is a liar, just that his life was not quite as humble as he sometimes suggests. Edwards obviously was not born to privilege, and he became a successful multimillionaire lawyer by his own talent and work, and yet for some reason he still feels the need to embellish the story a bit.
Columbia, S.C., January 30
After the church appearance, and a candidates’ debate, Edwards heads to the state capital of Columbia, where he will appear with the other candidates at an event called “Dialogue With America’s Families,” organized by a Washington-based activist group called the Center for Community Change. It’s a loony-Left gathering, with an atmosphere reminiscent of last year’s antiwar protests. In the program that precedes the candidates’ appearances, a woman takes the stage to sing her personal national anthem–”O beautiful, for darkened skies, for us there is no grain; for purple mountain majesties, above the fruitless plain.” Dreadlocked poets read their work from dog-eared notebooks. A speaker yells, “This is the creed for the people in need!” Someone beats an African drum.
The format is to have a pre-selected group of ordinary citizens question the candidates one-on-one. Edwards comes on stage and gives a brief speech on his anti-poverty plan. Then the first question comes, from a woman named Elaine Johnson, from Orangeburg, S.C. Her 22-year-old son, Darius, was killed in Iraq, she says, after joining the military because he couldn’t find a job.
The story appears to knock Edwards a little off track. For years, he has refused to publicly discuss a personal tragedy of his own, the death of his 16-year-old son Wade in an auto accident in 1996. Unlike Al Gore, who at the 1996 Democratic convention dwelled at morbid length on his sister’s smoking-related death, or Richard Gephardt, whose standard stump speech included the story of his son Matt, who had cancer as a small child but survived, Edwards hasn’t exploited his sadness for political gain.
On stage, Johnson finishes her story by asking Edwards what he would do to provide more jobs for people like her son. If there were ever a moment to bring up his own story, this is it. But Edwards stays silent. Instead, he looks at Johnson, takes her hand and says, “God bless you, God bless you for what you’ve been through.” For an instant, Edwards, who is as slick a political performer as they come, can’t quite get his feet. “Here’s–here’s what I would say about what you just asked about,” he says to Johnson. “This is something, I–I–I was–I was–as most people know, I was born here in South Carolina. I grew up in my very early years in a mill village . . .” Regaining his focus, Edwards tells Johnson he would deal with situations like her son’s by changing American trade policy.
Later, Edwards pulls off a trick that few other candidates could even attempt. David Stanton, the local TV anchorman moderating the event, asks Edwards, “You made millions of dollars as a trial lawyer. According to published reports, you and your wife recently purchased two multi-million-dollar homes in the Washington area. You talk about two Americas. Is it reasonable to think that you can relate to those who are less fortunate?”
As Stanton finishes, the crowd begins to boo Edwards; someone that rich clearly can’t know the creed for the people in need. Then Edwards begins to answer. “The life that I have lived is the dream that is being shut off from so many Americans every single day,” he says. He tells the mill-village story, the my-dad-was-a-mill-worker story, and then, turning to the crowd, he holds his arms out like a televangelist and says, “I grew up the way you grew up. I come from the same place. I spent twenty years in courtrooms fighting for YOU, against big corporate America, against big insurance companies. I will never forget where I come from, and you can take that to the bank.” By the time Edwards finishes, the crowd is cheering for him.
That night, Edwards makes an appearance with the South Carolina-based band Hootie and the Blowfish. He’s expected to say just a few words to introduce the band–after all, he has a long trip to New Mexico ahead that night, with stops in Oklahoma and Missouri before coming back to South Carolina. But Edwards is fired up. As the band waits, he begins: “We live in a country where there are really still two different Americas . . .”
There are almost no specifics in the speech. And Edwards rarely mentions his record in the Senate (he doesn’t have much of one). But the crowd loves it, especially his conclusion, which he delivers in a near-shout in the noisy nightclub. “I can’t change this country alone, but I know that you and I can change this country together,” he says. “The reason I know that you and I can change America together is I believe in you, and you deserve a president who actually believes in YOU!”
After his speech, as Hootie moves into a greatest-hits set, Edwards escapes to his campaign bus, which he calls the Real Solutions Express. Once in the door, the smile is off and Edwards is back to business, taking off his coat, quickly sitting down, squirting a bit of liquid sanitizer on his hands, beginning to read some papers. Then he looks to his left and realizes that supporters have come outside in the cold to watch him through the bus’s window. All of a sudden, BAM!–it’s showtime again. The big Edwards smile and wave and hand gestures are back. For a moment it appears he might roll down the window and start talking about the two Americas. But there’s a plane to catch.
A few days later, Edwards wins South Carolina, just as he planned. His campaign stays alive. And he can say, over and over again, to thousands more people, “We live in an America . . .”