John Edwards and the issue of poverty

Guest Column

If one figure looms large in absentia this week at the Democratic National Convention, it is John Edwards.

The former U.S. senator plummeted in a seeming instant from his party’s golden young man to a tortured tabloid cliche.

Edwards infamously cheated on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and fathered a child with a campaign worker, then tried to cover up the mess.

So the North Carolinian with the perfect hair and the sweet-tea voice is nowhere to be seen this week. His Chapel Hill home sits just 2 hours up Interstate 85, but as the Democrats open their convention Tuesday, Edwards is not invited and
barely spoken about.

The loss of another narcissistic, self-destructive politician might not amount to much in some ways. But along with  Edwards went a moment in Democratic Party politics when national figures talked about an issue that has all but disappeared from the agenda — poverty.

There may be a caucus or meeting on the poor this week in Charlotte, but the topic has been pushed to the sidelines. It’s hardly been mentioned in a prolonged Republican primary season, except as a negative:  Mitt Romney and vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan insist (falsely) that President Obama wants to cut work requirements for people on welfare.

It wasn’t this way just four years ago, partly due to circumstance but also because of the presence of the native Carolinian, Edwards. Through much of his 2007-2008 race for president, he talked about the untenable  divide between the
“two Americas.”

Even aides who became bitterly disappointed with Edwards’ personal failings said that his compassion for the less fortunate was not feigned. They saw too many times, with no cameras around, when the “son of a mill worker” would vent his dismay, and some anger, about how poor people had been left without access to education and, especially, medical care.

He may have been more committed to his own ambitions, like a lot of pols, said one former aide, but “he was more committed to the issue of poverty than any politician in a long time.”

The former assistant declined to be named, lest he be seen as piling on a figure he still feels empathy for. A federal jury in May failed to convict Edwards of charges that he used campaign funds to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter.

It’s hard to know if  any national politician could get traction today for an initiative to provide more benefits to the poor.  The Great Recession had just kicked off in 2008 and many Americans remained more hopeful about a relatively
short downturn.

But in 2012, said the Edwards aide, “the middle class has been struggling so much that reminding people that there are others faring even worse is not a particularly successful recipe for victory.” If anything, the talk has been about cutting
government aid.

“It’s a topic that needs to be driven by morality and not interest,” continued the assistant. “This is a tough time to bring out issues like that.”

Four years ago, Edwards felt no such constraints.  His aides saw the former trial lawyer genuinely moved by the plight of poor people, who reminded him of the mill workers his family grew up with in
North Carolina.

One man who particularly captured Edwards’ imagination was James Lowe, a 51-year-old coal miner from eastern Kentucky. The politician met the blue-collar worker on the campaign trail. He had been disabled in the mines and unable to work and, before that, spent most of his life barely
able to speak because he had no insurance or money to repair a cleft palate.

Edwards became caught up in Lowe’s story and took him along on a three-day “poverty tour” in the summer of 2007. Lowe was a reticent speaker, but Edwards unleashed what appeared to be a sincere fury about the man’s life on the margin.

“We have to do something about this! This is not OK!” Edwards fairly shouted to one crowd. “How can we allow this to happen, that James had to live 50 years without treatment? Are you listening? This is America’s problem. And let me tell you, as long as I am alive and breathing I’m going to do
something about it!”

Edwards had a knack for drawing crowds in. On that tour and others, he had people calling out affirmation of his outrage.

Even as he too-consciously channeled Robert F. Kennedy’s poverty tour of 40 years prior, he doubtless sensed that few issues animated the base of the Democratic Party like poverty, with the possible exception of civil rights. But still, he seemed to mean every word of it.

It was the candidate’s bad fortune, though, that another candidate in the 2008 race, an upstart named Barack Obama, personified the issue of racial equality. And even on the question of poverty, polls showed Democrats preferred the senator from Illinois over the North Carolinian who talked about the issue every day.

Six months after his poverty tour, Edwards finished a distant second to Obama in the Iowa caucuses. His presidential hopes had been dashed. In just weeks, he would be struggling to duck and cover from the truth about his own immorality.  There was no time for talking about others’ problems.

Ever since, no major politician of either party has talked much about the poor.

James Rainey

McClatchy-Tribune

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