By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The Beltway Establishment is bewildered and bothered by John Edwards — he's never fully been one of them. The national press also had a difficult time understanding and defining him clearly, describing him in turns as optimistic or angry, as a populist or a phony. He started this election cycle with a bang, putting out one hard-detailed policy initiative after another. His health care plan had the blogosphere abuzz and was an unexpected shot in the arm for a flailing progressive movement. Edwards followed up with environmental, education, economic, trade and labor plans that reinforced the perception that he was walking a true progressive path, so much so that Ralph Nader went on television to call him "the most progressive mainstream presidential candidate I've seen in years."
Obama and Clinton, who for months kept promising to unveil their plans, were caught off-guard by the aggressiveness of Edwards' positioning. And when they finally revealed their plans, their ideas tended to be sketchy in some instances and, in others, stunningly similar to the ones Edwards had put forth long before. The media mostly looked the other way at this policy boosting, and instead focused on an almost fetishistic anointing of either the first female or the first black president of the United States.
But John Edwards is tough. Perhaps this is what the pundits have either failed to understand or willfully neglected to point out. His campaign has faced challenge after challenge and his personal life has been struck by tragedy, yet he remained in the race long past the media's expectations, unbowed. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, understand what the passage of time means in a life, and they've made hard and clear decisions about how they're going to live.
I observed the candidate on the campaign trail when reporters weren't around during each of the four primaries and found that he was always strikingly calm in spite of the whirl around him. Edwards, I've been told, is guided by a faith that runs deep but which he refuses to unleash on the general public. During his tenure as a senator from North Carolina, at a prayer breakfast in D.C. where he was said to have given a moving speech, he was advised to bring up his faith again and again as a political tool. Edwards said, "No," and has been intractable on the matter ever since.
In the month before the Iowa caucuses and just before the start of a town-hall meeting of more than 300 people, an aide took me backstage to say hello. Edwards was standing alone in a large, dark room. He smiled brightly, manners impeccable, but there was a slight vulnerability emanating from him. While he's been described by those close to him as supremely confident, in that moment I felt something else. He reminded me of the "good son," the man who still wore the aura of wanting to please his father, to give the task at hand his best. It was an oddly touching quality, and something told me to politely leave him be. He was gracious to a fault, hands in his pockets. Before leaving, I muttered, "You're on the right side of things," and he nodded with a certainty that was not at all cocky, but instead youthful in its hopefulness, replying, "Yes. I think I am."
Five minutes later, he was onstage, vulnerability gone, and whipping through his stump speech, calling down corporate lobbyists for the "stranglehold" they have on Washington lawmakers, promising that they'd never be part of his White House, reminding his audience that, unlike his two main opponents, he's never taken a dime of D.C.-lobbyist or PAC money, castigating the health-insurance and pharmaceutical companies for murder by spreadsheet practices, and defending labor unions as an essential voice in preserving the American middle class.
By now Edwards' back story is well-known. What hasn't been closely scrutinized is the effect that his hardscrabble background, the job uncertainty his father constantly faced, the moving from mill town to mill town must have had on him. The simple answer is that the hardship made him strong, but what's never discussed is the humiliation that must have come with it. Edwards' character seems to be a peculiar blend of self-effacing humility and nervy boldness. He doesn't tout his virtues in private, as I would have expected from him or any other politician, but he does retain the manner of a tough guy who grew up around a lot of other tough guys. If he'd had less-than-solid parenting, it's easy to imagine that his more pugilistic qualities could have been expressed a different way. Edwards is proud of recounting his father's admonishment, "Son, I don't ever want to see you start a fight, but you better not walk away from one either. If someone hits you, punch 'em in the nose." He is a Southern boy to the core and unapologetic for it.
In the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, John and Elizabeth Edwards would campaign two 36-hour marathons within one week's time. Reporters assigned to cover them were left exhausted, drained and grumpy. But Edwards, hour after hour, seemed preternaturally fresh. Onstage, he had a passionate, buoyant presence; offstage and while on the road on his bus, he played the host who wouldn't hold court. Edwards would be engaged one moment in casual conversation, relaxed, easy smile intact, then suddenly he'd be somewhere else altogether, completely private and difficult to read. He seemed to be either concentrating on something that passed earlier in the day or preparing himself for what is coming. It's a strong inner life that pulls him momentarily apart from his companions and a quicksilver, intuitive intelligence that allows him to re-enter the conversation without seeming to miss a beat. The effect is vaguely confusing if one expects nothing more than the uncomplicated, amiable man the media consistently portrays Edwards as, confusing because he never seems to strain between his engagement in two different worlds.