Politics & Policy

The Sound and Fury of John Edwards

The next Huey Long? He artfully reprises Disraeli's Two Nations and William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold."

“The truth is,” Senator Edwards told the Democratic Convention in Boston Wednesday night, “we still live in two different Americas.” As he said this, a sudden flush of rosy light, falling upon his youthful face, indicated that the sun had just fallen; and through a vacant arch that overlooked the hall, alone in the resplendent sky, glittered the twilight star–no, sorry, that’s book two, chapter five, of Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel, Sybil, or the Two Nations. In it Dizzy describes how the scales fall from the eye of the young hero, Egremont, when he for the first time sees the social and economic Light. Egremont is musing over the ruins of an English abbey when he encounters two strangers with Chartist (radical) sympathies. When Egremont tells them that, “say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed,” the younger of the two strangers responds,

“Which nation?…for she reigns over two.”

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

“Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

“You speak of–” said Egremont, hesitatingly.


The last time an American politician–Richard Nixon, egged on by Pat Moynihan–reprised Disraeli, we got wage and price controls and a plan for a guaranteed minimum income. Now Senator Edwards wants to play with the fire that singed the Clintons a decade ago: He sings of bringing the glories of a command economy to American medicine.

No, Senator Edwards, America is not a feudal state in which a few robber barons exploit the helpless serfs. The Democrats were supposed to have broken with this way of thinking ten years ago. They were supposed to have rejected Kevin Phillips’s jeremiads extolling class warfare, rejected the belief that America is filled with little people so weak and despondent that only the government and a platoon of trial lawyers can save them. Bill Clinton might not have mastered Hayek and von Mises; but he was at least supposed to have wiped away the 19th-century dust under which his party lay buried and cleared an intellectual atmosphere that had become as stale as the air in Karl Marx’s study. He was supposed to have purged the Democratic party of the paternalist thinking that Disraeli advocated in Sybil–thinking that led, in the 20th century, to the creation of so many out-of-control nanny states. The new generation of Democrats, we were told, was at last ready to say goodbye to Michael Harrington, was ready to exchange LBJ’s vision of a Great Society for Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a free one.

But now comes Senator Edwards, sunnily voicing the arguments of the 19th-century Massachusetts Brahmin George Bancroft, a dinosaur who argued that the “feud between the CAPITALIST and the LABORER, the HOUSE OF HAVE and the HOUSE OF WANT, is as old as the social union, and can never be entirely quieted.” To which Lincoln replied:

What is the true condition of the laborer? I take it that it is best to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good [a profound insight; out of it Friedrich Hayek, a century later, spun a classic book, The Constitution of Liberty]. So while we don’t propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with anybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor for his whole life. . . . I want every man to have a chance–and I believe a black man is entitled to it–in which he can better his condition–when he can look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterwards, and finally to hire men to work for him. That is the true system.

John Edwards didn’t get that memo. What Lincoln called the “true system”–a “free society”–Senator Edwards professes to regard as broken, and he advocates–what else?–a less free system directed from Washington.

Does Senator Edwards really believe what he is saying? Fortunately for the country he probably doesn’t. Edwards is a trial lawyer who mastered the southern camp-revival style of preaching in order to win over juries. I saw a clip of him the other day on a platform actually swaying, or rocking, on his feet, before he began to speak–working himself up to the rhythm of the revival, readying himself to convert the souls of poor-folk and consign the rich to hellfire. The revivalist’s enthusiasm may be genuine, but don’t hold him to his actual words. The Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut–herself, like Edwards, a native of South Carolina–observed that at the fever pitch of his trance the evangelical preacher does not know or care what he says. Yes, the preacher becomes “wildly excited,” his voice “strangely clear and musical, occasionally in a plaintive minor key that went to your heart.” “Sometimes it rung like a trumpet. I wept bitterly.” But, she concluded, it “was all sound…and emotional pathos. There was literally nothing in what he said. The words had no meaning it all. It was the devotional passion of voice and manner that was so magnetic.” That’s John Edwards–sweet I’ll-save-your-soul talk masking the intellectual aridity of a personal-injury lawyer’s approach to life.

The last American politician to have mastered the oratory of the revival and the camp meeting as thoroughly as Edwards was William Jennings Bryan. At the 1896 Democratic Convention even skeptics were caught up in the fervor Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech. Richard Hofstadter recounted how one of the Gold Democrats, who had been sneering at Bryan, “lost control of himself” during the peroration. He grabbed hold of a fellow Democrat: “Yell, for God’s sake, yell!” he shouted as Bryan thundered his crescendo, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Bryan didn’t understand the inflationary implications of his free-silver policy; he simply wanted the government to print more money to help poor struggling farmers. “I don’t know anything about free silver,” he admitted in 1892. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.” Edwards is more subtle and intelligent than Bryan; but his rhetoric is as vapid. He senses what the jury wants to hear; he’ll look up the arguments later, get some junior lawyer in the office to hunt up a few likely precedents. He doesn’t really want to crucify the rich on a cross of gold, but the idea makes for a good speech; it’s the song that counts for Edwards, not the substance. Still, the glint in his eye is not reassuring. The politician who rejoices in his mastery is the most dangerous kind; and watching Edwards speak I was uneasily reminded of Huey Long.

Two questions. 1) Will the Republicans find some way to call Edwards out on his-ever-so-genial revival of the rhetoric of class warfare–rhetoric which Clinton himself, the most politically astute of the modern Democrats, long ago rejected as not helpful to his party? 2) Will the media, who love to carp about Bush’s injection of his religious sensibility into public debates, call Edwards out on his own use, on the public stage, of every phony trick in Elmer Gantry’s book of mountebankery?

Michael Knox Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind and The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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