|Photo by Ted Soqui|
John Edwards, the newly minted vice-presidential pick, was just barely too young for Vietnam. That imperfect war never became a liability or an asset in his later political life. Sure, he could’ve volunteered right out of high school, but few took issue with educational deferments. By 1977, when he finished law school, the war was long over for American soldiers. John Edwards would have neither draft dodging, war protesting nor battlefield atrocities to explain to voters.
Yet he was witness to another, formative conflict that swept over him as a child growing up in Robbins, North Carolina. Like everyone else in that region, he was a veteran of the civil rights era. It isn’t something Southern politicians talk much about even today. And the 2002 gaffe of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott underscores why. If you were white in the South — especially if you were white and doing well — chances are good that there’s not a lot positive you can say about where you were when integration became the law of the land.
But John Edwards has talked about that time and its relation to this time. It’s one of the more remarkable character fragments he showed during his own run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“We also have an America that in far too many ways is still divided by race,” he said in a typical speech during a South Carolina benefit concert in January. “And this is something many of us have lived with our entire lives. I mean, from the time I was this big, I saw the ugly faces of segregation and discrimination. I saw young African-American kids sent upstairs in movie theaters, white-only signs on restaurants. I’ll never forget being in sixth grade and having my teacher walk into the classroom to announce that the school was about to be integrated, and since it was, he would no longer teach, because he wouldn’t teach in an integrated school.”
This anecdote, though often part of his stump speech, was not campaign pablum. Southerners of a certain age, say 45 or older, remember these things if they choose to. Most Southerners aren’t like that sixth-grade teacher, but people like the sixth-grade teacher are their fathers or their uncles or high-propensity voters. In southern North Carolina, the schools and movie theaters used to have three-way segregation: for whites, blacks and Indians; the Lumbees, by the way, had to make do with a one-room schoolhouse for all grades.
It’s just not that long ago that the New South was the Old South. And in some places not so much has changed: There’s still a black part of town where you count on the roads being rough, the houses battered, the incomes small and the schools neglected. Many campuses are integrated, but the achievement gap still creates a color line at the door to high school honors classes.
Senator Lott stepped into it on the occasion of the late Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, when he commented nostalgically on the 1948 presidential run of the South Carolina senator, saying, “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years either.” Thurmond, of course, ran on a pro-segregation platform in 1948.
Through a civil rights prism, members of Thurmond’s generation were the oppressors. At the very least, most quietly acquiesced to institutionalized injustice. Many in Lott’s age group became resisters, who continued to claim segregation’s spoils of political and economic supremacy. Some in a later generation, John Edwards’ peers, resisted more subtly, or harbored resentments about surrendered prosperity. They understood and accepted Ronald Reagan’s coded invitation to join his conservative warriors.
During the primary season, Edwards apparently appealed most to independent white, working-class and middle-class voters. Many of them voted for Reagan or were like the voters who did. Most of them are preoccupied with their own, very real job and health-insurance struggles, and not so much with civil rights. But Edwards would not stay silent, nor trade in euphemisms, even when speaking before nearly all-white audiences.
“I feel such a huge personal responsibility when it comes to issues of race and equality and civil rights,” he said during a February rally in his birthplace of Seneca, South Carolina. “And we have work to do in this country.”
Older white voters — some of them had to be one-time participants in segregation — didn’t seem to take the challenge personally. Plump, white-haired ladies hugged him. Stooped, balding men clapped him on the back and vigorously wrung his hand. Had his message won them over? Or were they just delighted with one of their own who made good?
Edwards’ success with such voters no doubt caught John Kerry’s attention. The election could hinge on such swing voters in the Midwest and Southwest, as Kerry’s remarks implied. “I have chosen a man who understands and defends the values of America,” said Kerry, “as a champion for middle-class Americans and those struggling to reach the middle class — a man who has shown guts, determination and political skill in his own race for the presidency.” He added, “There’s something else about John Edwards that is important to this campaign and our country at this critical time: I am determined that we reach out across party lines, that we speak the heart of America — hope and optimism.”
Edwards will not likely win the South for Kerry. Even North Carolina is a long shot given Bush’s 13 percent margin there in 2000. But Edwards will surely win some votes and force Bush to play some defense in his strongholds.
All told, Edwards represents a “new wave” of Southern politician who grew up in a more integrated society, said Frank A. Daniels Jr., retired publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer. “He sees how things have changed, and he recognizes the need for change.”
But then, Newt Gingrich also represented a new, yet quite different wave of Southern politician. Edwards, Daniels noted, won’t run away from talking about inequality in his own back yard. “I don’t think many people say they feel responsible, but I think it’s appropriate that Edwards says it.”
Even when he says it to white people?
“That’s part of what makes him so good,” said Daniels. “One of his strengths is that he can do it with sincerity, and people don’t get angry about it.”
Maybe Edwards was just pandering for black votes. Maybe it’s just technique. His rhetoric embodies the down-home but carefully calculated oratory of the accomplished trial lawyer that he was before winning a Senate seat in 1998. But it’s also true that, years before he entered politics, he declined to join the nearby country club to which his neighbors belonged, because its members didn’t include blacks.
Though Edwards comes from working-class stock, he achieved political prominence largely because he amassed millions as a lawyer who went after doctors, hospitals and corporations. Critics said he helped drive up the cost of malpractice insurance while enriching himself through jury awards, even if sympathetic clients also benefited. He used these millions to help win a U.S. Senate seat. Then he made a strong showing in the presidential primaries with help from a brilliant speech about “Two Americas.” Republicans dismissed this manifesto as opportunistic class-war politics. Even some Democrats suggested that Edwards was shallow or inexperienced or more flash than substance.
But Edwards’ charisma is, in the end, a positive. His courtroom career argues an intellectual brilliance. And the hints of sincerity and empathy with the unfortunate are enough to give progressives some reason for optimism.
Yes, there’s a distinct lack of diversity in the presidential tickets — four big-money white guys in the presidential and VP slots. But there’s rich like J.P. Morgan, and there’s rich like FDR. Democrats can hope voters will see a difference that matters between the wealth of Dick Cheney and the richness of John Edwards.