John Edwards has the best smile, the best hair and the most effective populist discourse of all the Democrats who want to be president. His endlessly repeated “Two Americas” stump speech — flaying the haves for fleecing the have-nots — has been carefully honed over months on the campaign trail. It won him second place in Iowa. But it takes more than one speech to give a contender real staying power — as the cash-strapped Edwards discovered when, by an eyelash, he lost the third-place ticket out of New Hampshire to a treasury-rich general with a weightier résumé.
But what’s under the hair and behind the smile? He was born Johnny Reid Edwards in a small mill town, but abandoned this moniker as too Snopes-y when he began the legal career that made him super-rich. He constantly says he’s the “son of a mill worker,” and to hear him tell it, he pulled himself up from poverty so crushing it evokes images of shoeless Li’l Abner. His “Two Americas” rally-pleaser gets much of its power from this poor-boy autobiography, but in making this tale his central campaign theme, Edwards gave his family history a cosmetic make-over, like the one he gave his name.
“The Edwardses were solidly middle class” when Johnny was growing up, according to a four-part profile of the North Carolina senator in his home state’s most prestigious daily, the Raleigh News and Observer. It’s true that for a few years as a young man Edwards’ father worked on the floor of a Roger Milliken textile mill. But Edwards père (a lifelong Republican, like his reactionary boss) quickly climbed upward, becoming a monitor of worker productivity as a “time-study” man — which any labor organizer in the South will tell you is a polite term for a stoolie who spies on the proletarian mill hands to get them to speed up production for the same low wages. Daddy Edwards’ grassing got him promoted to supervisor, then to plant manager — and he finally resigned to start his own business as a consultant to the textile industry. As a Boston Globe profile of Edwards put it last year, the senator never “notes that his father was part of management . . . ‘John was more middle class than most of us,’” says Bill Garner, a high school friend and college roommate.
Edwards’ legislative record — what little there is of it — is hardly populist. In fact, Edwards is a classic, corporate-friendly, centrist New Democrat. In his five years as a freshman senator, Edwards on his own produced little legislation, much less than some other first-termers — although he was assigned by Tom Daschle to represent the Democrats in negotiations over a patients’ bill of rights, and so can boast he was a co-sponsor of the final, but aborted, bill.
However, there’s one highly significant chapter in his Senate career omitted from Edwards’ campaign Web site. Edwards, who comes from a state where banking is big business, played a critical role in brokering legislation to allow banks to sell mutual funds and insurance, and to engage in other speculative ventures. This law, worth hundreds of billions to the banks, blasted a gigantic hole in the Glass-Steagal banking law’s firewall of protections designed to prevent the kinds of bank collapses that marked the Great Depression of the ’30s — meaning that it put the money of Joe Six-Pack depositors at risk. Such a gigantic boon to the banking lobby can hardly be classed as a populist victory.
If there was real depth to Edwards’ rhetorical populism, one would expect to find it in “Real Solutions for America.” That’s the 60-page campaign booklet that Edwards refers to in his stump speech. But when one checks out these “real solutions” (available on his Web site), one finds a lot of nice-sounding hot air, some innocuous small-bore proposals — and few specific details. On a number of important matters — example: federal corporate welfare — the “solutions” Edwards’ speeches describe as “bold” involve . . . appointing a commission.
Sometimes, the pamphlet contradicts Edwards’ reality. Example: “Some tax lawyers make millions through flimsy letters telling clients how to shelter their income. Edwards will stop these abuses,” it claims. But in 1995, Edwards — already a multimillionaire — set up a professional corporation to shelter at least $10 million in legal earnings from having to pay Medicare taxes on them, saving himself some $290,000, according to the News and Observer, which quoted a top specialist from the American Institute of CPAs as labeling this trick “gaming the system.” Populist hypocrisy?
The foreign and defense policy sections of the pamphlet are similarly airy and detail-free, with lots of boilerplate guff about “promoting democratic values.” And while Edwards, when campaigning, bashes John Ashcroft for assaults on civil liberties, his pamphlet boasts that he’d “create thousands of neighborhood watch groups by 2007,” which sounds suspiciously akin to Ashcroft’s infamous TIPS program of setting citizen to spy on citizen. Edwards, of course, voted for both the blank check to Dubya for war in Iraq, and for the civil liberties–shredding Patriot Act. He’s in no position to take on Dubya over his lies about Iraq’s WMD — for Edwards himself proclaimed, as late as October 10, 2002, “We know that Hussein has chemical and biological weapons”; and hailed the invasion of Iraq, which “still might prove a victory for people everywhere . . . who seek to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”
The Web zine Slate called him “more hawkish than all the Democratic candidates except for Joe Lieberman.” Example: As a senator, Edwards voted to deploy the “Star Wars” national missile defense as soon as possible — but you won’t find this controversial position in Johnny’s feel-good pamphlet. His solution to the quagmire of the U.S. occupation of Iraq is not to hand it over to the United Nations — of which Edwards has been a tart critic — but to have Iraq policed by NATO, which is not exactly what most of the world would interpret as a step toward the international rule of law.
Edwards is certainly clever, but his knowledge base is awfully thin — only Al Sharpton’s is thinner. In the last New Hampshire debate, he didn’t know what the Defense of Marriage Act really said — despite the fact that the GOP is making gay marriage the hot-button social issue in ’04. He’s startlingly callow to go up against Dubya, no matter how good a debater he is. Example: In the June 2003 Washington Monthly, its iconoclastic editor, Charlie Peters, reported the following anecdote: “One evening while he was campaigning for the Senate in North Carolina, Edwards was faced with a choice of several events he might attend. An advance man suggested, ‘Maybe we ought to go to the reception for Leah Rabin.’ ‘Who’s she?’ ‘Yitzhak Rabin’s widow,’ replied the aide. ‘Who was he?’ asked Edwards.”
Edwards on the stump likes to proclaim, “What you see is what you get.” Not quite, Johnny.