John Edwards, Out but Unbowed

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.

Edwards had no speechwriter on his staff; he wrote his own words. He listened to his campaign manager, David Bonior, union activist and former House whip, and to Joe Trippi and rural adviser Mudcat Saunders, who were brought into the campaign by Elizabeth. It's his wife whose counsel he deeply relies upon. Edwards exhibited a gentle regard toward Elizabeth and daughter Cate, and both women acted as surrogates on the trail.


Their campaign was remarkably uncensored. In the time I spent with them, talking to small groups or giving remarks to audiences before appearances by the senator or Elizabeth, never was I given a single talking point or questioned beforehand on what I would say. I would remark about this with Bonior, knowing the loose-cannon potential of such a situation, and I wondered if the campaign showed a lack of wisdom in not managing my statements. He only laughed and said, "Oh, we're not worried."

Similarly, neither Edwards nor his wife were afraid of hard questions thrown their way. Edwards is described as "fearless" by his co-workers, and this may well be true. But one wonders if, in fact, fear had pushed him to continue running his campaign full throttle as the cause of his life. He's known helplessness and desolation in the loss of his son. And he knew the terrible disappointment of watching the Democratic Party and John Kerry give up on the presidency.

On election night 2004, Edwards and Kerry had a knockdown-dragout fight. Ohio was in the balance, and peculiar things were happening in precincts throughout the state. Edwards had gone before cameras and supporters and, with a barely contained fury, promised the nation that every vote would be counted. A few hours later, John Kerry, after doing an unofficial tabulation, felt it was time to concede. Edwards argued heatedly that the campaign should use its 14 million unspent dollars to lawyer up and go to the mat to investigate the Ohio vote... no matter if it took until Inauguration Day 2005.

Kerry, instead, closed up shop, went home, and the nation got four more years of George W. Bush.

Edwards must have felt that by capitulating, the party leaders had turned their backs on Ohio voters. He wanted clarity where none existed. And he felt the sting and bitterness of seeing the fight he put up ignored.

It's not in Edwards' DNA to walk away from a fight. Edwards had been consistently up against it during this election cycle and defied the expectations of the media that continually watched for and predicted his surrender. After his second-place finish ahead of Hillary Clinton and behind Obama in Iowa, the writer Ezra Klein noted the result: "The talking heads on MSNBC just spent a few minutes puzzling over John Edwards' concession speech. 'It had no concession,' they fretted. It didn't talk at all about the horserace, or the vote totals. Instead, Edwards spoke of the downtrodden, the uninsured, the insecure, the exploited, the oppressed, the wronged, the scared, the hungry, the homeless, and the poor. It was a fitting speech. It was not about the candidate or the race, but about the ideas, and the individuals they are supposed to help. In that way, it was Edwards' candidacy distilled to its core."

Clinton speaks about experience as her great asset, and it's true, her connections run deep — she has to explain the fortune given to her by defense and pharmaceutical lobbyists. Obama promises he'll guide us into a new era of politics and chides those who question his rhetoric of hope as enablers of an old and weary system. He unwisely invoked Ronald Reagan as a man who understood that Americans wanted change, saying, "He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."


When Edwards heard Obama's comments, his first question was, "Where did he say this?" When he was shown the transcript, there was a momentary flash of anger on his face, and the next day, in a public statement, he reminded us that Reagan "...was openly — openly — intolerant of unions and the right to organize. He openly fought against the union and the organized-labor movement in this country. He openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day. The destruction of the environment, you know, eliminating regulation of companies that were polluting and doing extraordinary damage to the environment. I can promise you this: This president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."

In the case of Obama, one sentence does not a candidate make, but I can't help but draw a certain parallel between him and Reagan that Obama may have unconsciously been making. Reagan was mythologized, and so the mainstream media rarely scrutinized the side of his presidency that Edwards reminds us about. Perhaps Obama feels that a myth must first be created in order to engender goodwill.

John Edwards doesn't share this view. He believes in looking under the hood and kicking the tires. His nature is optimistic — he genuinely feels that it's possible to both stare the nation's problems down and remove the obstacles standing in the way of change. As Edwards closed his presidential bid in the place where he began it - New Orleans' Ninth Ward - he remained the pugilist contained in a good boy's frame. He's not backing down. His campaign has given voice to the voiceless, and he'll be holding Obama and Clinton's feet to the fire.

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