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?