Is there one America or two Americas? One and a half Americas?
Hours before lawyer-turned-senator John Edwards was to appear before the convention and deliver the most important summation of his life, I ran into Tad Devine, a senior Kerry campaign strategist, in the bowels of the Fleet Center. I asked if Edwards would reprise the “Two Americas” speech that won rave reviews (at least from me) during the primary campaign. In that speech, Edwards had combined a populist critique of America as a society divided between the privileged (who benefit most from the rules) and the rest (who could use some help) with an upbeat call for various reforms and initiatives to improve the lot of hardworking families.
“Two Americas? I think he’ll be talking about one America,” Devine said. But wasn’t the message of his presidential campaign “Two Americas”? I inquired. “His message will be the Kerry-Edwards message of an America stronger at home and more respected abroad.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve heard about that message.” In case you have missed it, Stronger at home and more respected abroad has been the mantra of the campaign. Devine didn’t smile, and he raced off.
As it turned out, Edwards did do a version of his “Two Americas” speech–just not a very powerful one. After praising John Kerry as decisive, strong and optimistic, after recounting his own rags-to-riches-to-politics story, after telling the delegates (and the audience at home) that he had fought against big HMOs and big insurance companies as a trial attorney and had battled “Washington lobbyists” as a senator, Edwards said,
“I stand here tonight ready to work with you and John to make America strong again. And we have so much work to do. Because the truth is, we still live in two different Americas: one for people who have lived the American Dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans who work hard and still struggle to make ends meet. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can build one America.”
“We can build one America where we no longer have two health care systems. One for people who get the best health care money can buy and then one for everybody else, rationed out by insurance companies, drug companies, and HMOs–millions of Americans who don’t have any health insurance at all. It doesn’t have to be that way. We have a plan that will offer everyone the same health care your Senator has. We can give tax breaks to help pay for your health care. And we will sign into law a real Patients’ Bill of Rights so you can make your own health care decisions.”
“We shouldn’t have two public school systems in this country: one for the most affluent communities, and one for everybody else. None of us believe that the quality of a child’s education should be controlled by where they live or the affluence of their community. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can build one public school system that works for all our children. Our plan will reform our schools and raise our standards. We can give our schools the resources they need. We can provide incentives to put quality teachers in the places and the subjects where we need them the most. And we can ensure that three million kids with a safe place to go after school. This is what we can do together.”
Even though the night before Illinois state senator Barack Obama, the keynote speaker of the convention, had declared the nation one America in a rousing speech, Edwards stuck to his “Two Americas” script. Actually, it’s not hard to reconcile the different approaches. Obama spoke of a United States of America, tied together by shared aspirations and needs. Edwards addressed the reality of a nation that has yet to meet its social and economic obligations. The problem was that Edwards’ speech fell flat. His “Two Americas” routine had been the best speech of the primary season–the best written, the best delivered. With it, Edwards had campaigned as the cheery populist. But on this big night–in front of the largest jury he has ever attempted to persuade–Edwards delivered his “Two Americas” sermon with less pizzazz. The spark was missing.
It’s difficult to point to specific sentences or moments to support this review. But among journalists in the hall, the consensus was that Edwards’ acceptance speech lacked oomph. Perhaps it played better on television, some said. Perhaps he was told to tone it down so he would not outshine Kerry, a few others suggested. (I doubt that.) He looked great (as he usually does), he received an enthusiastic response from the delegates, but he did not nail it.
Edwards tried to inspire. As he did during the primaries, he called for addressing the problems of the working poor and for confronting the racial divisions of the nation. (Regarding the former, he urged boosting the minimum wage; on the latter, he merely suggested “we should talk about race, equality, and civil rights….Everywhere.”) But he did not soar, as Obama had. And the climatic rhetorical device of the speech–in which Edwards told delegates they can tell their overworked and stressed-out relatives and neighbors that “hope is on the way”–didn’t click. Are Americans who worry about job insecurity, weak wages, health care costs, and the affordability of education praying for hope, or for action? At the 2000 convention, Dick Cheney, during his acceptance speech, declared, “help is on the way.” Help is better than hope.
Edwards speech was fine, but it was not the best closer of his career. And the Kerry campaign missed another opportunity by failing to air in primetime a well-made film in which former senior officials of the military and the national security community endorsed Kerry. Instead, the film played several minutes before the network broadcasts began. “This should have been in primetime,” a senior Kerry adviser told me right before Edwards came on. “But we have a lot of good stuff.” Edwards’ good stuff, though, was not as good as it had been. And the third night of the Democrats’ infomercial had less punch then the first two. After the Edwards speech, I encountered another top Kerrynik. Well, I quipped, Kerry finally has the chance to do a better speech than Edwards. “We’re working on it,” he said.
At the end of my first blog of this convention, I noted, with some indignation, that a Congressional Black Caucus reception honoring civil rights champions from the 1960s was underwritten by Lockheed Martin and Verizon. Of course, many events at the convention–especially parties and receptions–have been paid for by corporations and trade associations. By financing these free-booze-and-food get-togethers, corporations earn good will with the Dems, and their lobbyists and executives get the chance to mingle with members of Congress and congressional staffers. It’s the usual institutional sleaziness that few seem to fret about. Edwards can proudly cite his battles with Washington lobbyists, even as Washington lobbyists help subsidize the convention.
But I’ve now decided corporate underwriting of the convention is fine by me. Why? Three nights ago, I was invited to a reception for the Hispanic Caucus of the House of Representatives. It was held at a small club. And on stage was Los Lobos, one of the best bands in America. I ended up literally standing next to band member David Hidalgo, as the group powered its way through a set of songs in English and Spanish, including, inevitably, its take on “La Bamba.” (A friend of mine had tried to convince the Democratic convention planners to give Los Lobos a good slot at the convention. This Latino group from East Los Angeles could have played its marvelous rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” How about that for coalition building? But no, the DNC took a pass.) And as I was enjoying myself immensely–imbibing free drinks and jiggling to the music–I thought, “Thank you, American Gas Association, proud sponsor of the reception for the Hispanic Caucus honoring Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.” Next time the AGA calls me and wants a favor, they’ve got it.
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