Friday, April 4, 2008

The sad, short political life of John Edwards

John Edwards stood before me, cradling an angelic 11-month-old popping a pacifier with the serenity only a father of four has.

His now famously $400-coiffed hair was shaggier then, his powder-blue Oxford collar unbuttoned and his cauliflower eyes less crinkled. There was an ease to the then-freshman senator on that sultry August day in 2003.

Speaking to a gathering of 40 university-types in a sprawling Iowa City backyard, Edwards relished his sunny, upstart campaign, much like Mike Huckabee did this time around.

The expert litigator didn't unfurl a fiery speech, as would become his trademark in 2008, nor did he spend much time on labor issues, save for his "son of a millworker" spiel. He deftly touched on the death of his oldest son, Wade, which propelled him into politics.

But in spite of his paper-thin political résumé (far skimpier than Barack Obama's), he looked presidential in a Hollywood sort of way. And he definitely had the kissing babies part down.

So I wasn't particularly surprised that he scored second place in the Iowa caucuses in '04. Nor was I by his repeat performance this year.

The difference was, after moving to the cornfields for a couple years, coming in No. 2 again was the death-knell of his campaign. I had my suspicions even back in August 2007 after talking with Edwards strategist Joe Trippi.

In the spin room after a Chicago debate, Trippi refreshingly didn't fall over himself to invent all the ways his guy won. He wisely said the field was winnowing to three, lumping Edwards and Obama together as the reform candidates.

When I asked if Edwards would hold a fundraising and organizational advantage over Republicans, Trippi replied, "Whoever the Democratic nominee is - whether it's Edwards or someone else - will inherit a much better operation."

When your communications guru stops painting you as an invincible superhero, you've got problems. Even Dennis Kucinich kept hope alive by adorably telling audiences, "When I'm president . . ."

There was a surrealist melancholy to Edwards' second run, as his wife, Elizabeth, wilted from a recurrence of incurable breast cancer. Both of them seemed itching for a fight - and who could blame them?

But for a former political Pollyanna, Edwards' newfound anger seemed off-key and his love affair with unions (after previously sitting on his hands in right-to-work North Carolina) came off contrived.

His worst moment came at that Chi-town debate, when a disabled steelworker who could barely stand at the microphone pled with candidates about universal health care.

"What's wrong with America?" Steve Skvara asked, neck pulsating in pain. "And what will you do to change it?"

Edwards blithely dispensed vague promises of reform, before proclaiming himself to be the true workers' candidate.

"Who was with you in crunch time?" Edwards grinned ingratiatingly at the crowd.

It was a truly chilling exchange, which his campaign didn't get, instead trumpeting the footage on YouTube. I wondered how a man whose wife has metastatic stage four cancer could respond that way.

After a string of dismal showings before Super Tuesday, Edwards quit. He never captured the limelight he felt he'd earned as a former vice presidential nominee, usurped by Hillary Clinton primping herself for coronation and by the superstar status of the silver-tongued Obama.

("We can't make John black; we can't make him a woman," Elizabeth Edwards had once scowled on the stump).

As the increasingly bitter Democratic brawl drags on, attention is turning to party elders to inject some sanity. But although a steady drip of superdelegates have come Obama's way, Edwards has stayed mum.

The conventional wisdom was that Edwards would endorse the frontrunner. They'd both ganged up on Clinton as the corporate candidate, who defended taking boatloads of lobbyists' cash because they "represent real Americans."

The golden boy hasn't and is now said to favor Clinton, whom he respects as a fighter, underscoring his resentment of Obama's successful healer-in-chief campaign.

The Edwardses are, not surprisingly, passionate about health care and prefer Clinton's blueprint to Obama's. This has always been a bizarre argument amongst the Dems, who all sport strikingly similar plans that are miles from John McCain's and the status quo.

There's a legitimate debate to be had over mandates (Obama doesn't have one for adults) but it's really just academic. Plans are just a starting point for negotiating with Congress (which Clinton blew big-time in 1993).

Four years after that Iowa City garden party, I'm still not quite sure who John Edwards is.

What is it that he wants? Does he want attorney general, terrorizing Wall Street a la Eliot Spitzer (sans the hooker mess)? It seems doubtful that he covets a second crack at veep. And he seems too restless to settle back down at the admirable anti-poverty organization he founded.

I don't think he knows.

He appears to be a man adrift in the face of losing his rock of 30 years. Grief and ambition drove him into politics. Sadly, it's now become a circular quest.


AHM said...

I do think this analysis of John Edwards political life is a little too negative - I certainly hope that his political career is not over yet.

And by the way - the event you recall was in August of 2003, in advance of the January '04 caucuses. It was a great visit, other than the heat, since the A/C in our home wasn't quite up to the task of cooling that many people coming in and out when it was at least 95 degrees out there.

Susan J. Demas said...

It was indeed 2003. Thank you.