Until God and Gerald Ford intervened, this was supposed to be the no-news week that would be the perfect time for John Edwards to become the first major candidate, Democrat or Republican, to formally announce a run for president. Edwards is sticking with his plan and will make his announcement tomorrow in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward — could there be a better setting for the 2008 version of that famous Two Americas speech?
To some observers, Edwards on the stump seems almost astonishingly phony. But he has an ability — it’s hard to describe precisely — to make something as contrived as a New Orleans announcement work for him. I followed him for a short while in South Carolina in early 2004, and saw him turn around potentially damaging situations in which audience members clearly doubted his bona fides. From an article I wrote back then:
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…
[During the event] 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.
How that worked I just don’t know. But it did.
By the way, on the Republican side, the timing of the candidates’ announcements seems to be still up in the air. The word was, Romney would go on January 8 or thereabouts. Giuliani is unknown. And a McCain source says “a formal announcement won’t be made early in the new year.”