Cornbread and Roses
"We might be seeing the kind of transformation Bobby Kennedy underwent," says Pete MacDowell, a veteran grassroots organizer and staunch Edwards critic ("a political Ken doll with a populist streak" is how MacDowell describes him) who runs the NC Progressive Democrats PAC. "After he initially supported Vietnam and went slow on civil rights, Kennedy developed a moral core and turned into the kind of Democrat we haven't seen since. I never thought I'd say this, but maybe that's what we're now seeing with Edwards. Maybe this is his core."
However implausible the RFK comparison might sound, it's hard to deny it on this mid-October Monday in Chapel Hill, when Edwards--fresh from the shelter--shimmers onto the stage of UNC's Great Hall at lunchtime, soaking up Beatles-esque roars of adulation from an overflow crowd of students. It's the first stop on a ten-campus national tour, Opportunity Rocks, where Edwards will urge thousands of students to fight poverty. Even with an unsexy message, the messenger will draw crowds that surprise even his organizers--1,500 at the University of California, Berkeley, more than 2,000 at the University of Michigan.
Edwards doesn't disappoint his young fans. Like his hero, Kennedy, he has a knack for talking about life-and-death struggles, laying bare the challenges of blue-collar folks struggling to make ends meet but leaving his audience more challenged and inspired than depressed. Reminding students of their forebears' campaigns against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, Edwards throws down the gauntlet: "These folks need a champion--and not just me. They need you. You can make ending poverty in America the cause of your generation. It's the right thing to do. This is not about charity--it's about justice!"
"I never thought I'd see this many kids coming to listen to a speech about poverty," UNC senior Josh Glasser gushed in the glowing wake left by Edwards as he jetted off to his next gig. Last year Glasser co-founded SPROUT, a campus group helping low-income locals apply for earned-income tax credits. Edwards's speech at UNC, where Glasser and co-founder James Jolley handed out SPROUT fliers, brought sixty-five new students to the group's listserv in just the first day. "We met with the senator and his staff and they really listened, really wanted to help," Glasser says. "It wasn't some top-down thing--they wanted to hear our ideas. I know some people are cynical about him using this to position himself for President. But come on: We all know poverty's not exactly a get-'em-to-the-polls kind of issue. He's convinced me, at least, that he means it." For Edwards, that's one down--and just a few dozen million more skeptics to go.
Johnny Reid Edwards shot onto the national political stage in 2001, at a moment when Democrats were still gagging on the bitter dregs of Al Gore's defeat--and dreaming fond dreams of the next Bill Clinton. And here, by God, he seemed to be: a jovial moderate, even handsomer than Clinton, saying smart, empathetic things about "regular people" in a soft Dixie drawl. Like Clinton, Edwards had risen to glory from practically nothing, the kind of rags-to-riches legend that has made voters swoon since the days of Andy Jackson. Best of all, he came without Clinton's personal baggage. Even the notorious smear campaigners at the North Carolina Republican Party could dredge up nothing damning on Edwards during his upset of Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998--nothing beyond the indisputable fact that he had, for twenty years, been successfully suing big corporations on behalf of those "regular people," piling up millions in the process as one of America's top trial attorneys.
In his three years as a senator, Edwards had hardly had time to knock anybody's socks off. He'd impressed hard-bitten Washingtonians when he deposed key witnesses in Clinton's impeachment trial and delivered a closing defense argument--and again when he led a winning fight, joining Senators McCain and Kennedy, for the Patients' Bill of Rights. But there were whispers of shallowness, callowness, naked opportunism. And almost as soon as he'd kindled the hopes of forlorn Democrats, more serious doubts began to surface.
Democrats had seen both Clinton and Jimmy Carter campaign as power-to-the-people populists and then govern more like Nixon than Roosevelt. Edwards's affiliation with the Democratic Leadership Council, founded in the mid-1980s to demolish the party's old "liberal fundamentalism," reinforced the suspicion that he was just another big talker from Dixie with a conservative core. It didn't help when Clinton, the old snake-oil master himself, admiringly commented that Edwards could "charm an owl out of a tree." Worse, throughout 2002 and 2003 Edwards gave policy speeches--crafted in part by DLC policy guru Bruce Reed--that made him sound exactly like what cynics had taken to calling him: Clinton Lite. "The American people don't want us to tear down America's corporations," he declared in a talk called "Putting Responsibility First." In one healthcare speech Edwards repeated the word "responsibility" twenty-eight times. Outlining his tax-policy proposals Edwards came off like a Clinton puppet, mouthing the mantra "opportunity, responsibility, hard work."
Out of the other side of his mouth, however, Edwards talked with candor and gut-level understanding about economic, racial and class inequities. "How long had it been since you heard a Democrat utter the word poverty?'' says Chris Kromm, executive director of the progressive Institute for Southern Studies. "And who would have thought they'd hear a Democrat from the South making workers' rights a central campaign theme?" Edwards's refusal to speak ill of his Democratic opponents also struck a fresh tone. Progressives remained skeptical, but they couldn't completely tune Edwards out--except for one not-so-little thing.