Cornbread and Roses
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
On a soft gray Monday in mid-October, the Interfaith Council shelter in downtown Chapel Hill has a brand-new volunteer, brimming with enthusiasm that's almost annoying at 10:15 in the morning. "How're you all doing back there?" John Edwards calls out to the kitchen crew as he beams into the dining room, trailed by a clutch of staffers, University of North Carolina antipoverty activists and TV cameras. While he chats up the shelter volunteers and residents, alternately squinting his perma-tanned face with concern and flashing the yard-wide smile that almost won Iowa, two white-haired women on the kitchen crew, both named Jane, are nudged toward him for a souvenir shot. "I want this picture for me," Edwards says with his best Sunday school charm, hugging the women under his arms. After a bit more chatting and hugging, there's a momentary lull. Hands on hips, with mock impatience, Edwards tilts toward the kitchen and hollers out, "So am I supposed to do something or what?"
"Well, we've got some unloading," offers Paul Eberhardt, the day shelter coordinator. Quick as a flash, last year's Democratic nominee for Vice President is back in the pantry, tearing cans of generic lima beans and tomatoes out of their plastic-wrapped cardboard while Eberhardt feeds him an earful of insights from the front lines of poverty-fighting. "Lately we're getting hospital workers, construction workers, here at lunchtime," Eberhardt says, talking fast. "It's low employment now, not just unemployment." Edwards purses his lips, furrows his brow, gives every sign of listening, even as he briskly moves on to filling up water pitchers, smiling on cue for the local affiliates until it's time to clap his hands and cry out to his staff, "What's next?"
Around this time last year, a lot of people were asking that very same question about Edwards. After his cometlike ascent from first-term senator to the national Democratic ticket, Edwards crashed to earth when he failed to persuade running mate John Kerry to contest George W. Bush's questionable victory in Ohio. Suddenly, Edwards's giddy three-year campaign to lift himself into the political stratosphere--and knit together the "two Americas" he dearly loved to preach about--was over. His wife, Elizabeth, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. His Senate seat, which Edwards had abandoned to focus on the national race, would return to Republican hands in January, leaving him without a built-in mechanism for staying in the national spotlight. For the first time in his adult life, this blue-skies optimist was staring straight into a blank horizon. Friends and admirers offered advice and speculated: Would he return to his law practice? Start a foreign-policy think tank to shore up his presidential résumé? Run for governor? Cash in on his connections with some Dan Quayle-style consultancies?
In February Edwards surprised them all, announcing a campaign to "eradicate poverty in America." With a $40,000 annual salary paid by private funds, Edwards became the first director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC, Chapel Hill's law school, largely a think tank designed to bring antipoverty scholars, activists, journalists and politicians together to cook up innovative ways to tackle economic and racial inequities.Edwards is also putting some of his ideas into action, including the College for Everyone program he promised in 2004. In low-income Greene County Edwards this summer announced a pilot program to pay for the first year of college for local high school graduates willing to work at least ten hours a week.
Since launching the center, Edwards has returned to perpetual motion, taking his antipoverty crusade to more than thirty states. Between visits to shelters and job-training centers and delivering his new stump speech, full of ringing challenges to view poverty as "the great moral cause of our time," Edwards has raised more than $4 million for Democratic legislative candidates in mostly red states, trying, as he says, "to build the party back from the ground up." He's teaming with unlikely partners on the left--including local AFL-CIO, ACORN and NAACP chapters--in campaigns to raise the minimum wage in Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. He's praising Big Labor's historic role in "lifting millions of Americans out of poverty." And he's floating serious--and surprisingly liberal--proposals to put his high-flown rhetoric into action. He's touting a controversial "cultural integration" plan to give low-income families housing vouchers to move into better neighborhoods. He's calling for expansions to Bill Clinton's earned-income tax credits, for concerted crackdowns on predatory lenders, and for "work bonds" to help low-income workers build savings and assets. He wants not only to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent but also to raise capital-gains taxes for those on the top rungs. After Hurricane Katrina he spoke pointedly about how "the face of poverty in America is the face of color" and promoted an ambitious Gulf Coast recovery program modeled on FDR's Works Progress Administration--a touchstone for the kind of big-government liberalism that the old Edwards (like most Democratic leaders today) wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.
All of which raises a question: Who is this guy--and what has he done with the centrist New Democrat who once had Karl Rove quaking in his boots? While he clearly hasn't lost his all-too-palpable lust for the White House, Edwards has largely left behind the Clintonian emphasis on "personal responsibility" and "fiscal restraint" that often struck a hollow note in his campaign speeches--particularly in contrast to his heartfelt cry of "two Americas." The metamorphosis began during the last campaign, when Edwards gradually found his voice as an economic populist. Less than a decade into his political career, he remains a work in progress.