New Hampshire Under Siege

Southern Fried

John Edwards is like Al Gore without the sizzle, Bill Clinton without the grease, Jimmy Carter without the peanuts.

By 1.14.04

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MANCHESTER -- John Edwards has let his hair trick him into thinking he's Bill Clinton and this is 1992. No one sent him the memo that national security issues would figure in this year's election. And, somehow, he managed to bus in people who've been in a cave for the last dozen years.

Such were my conjectures, anyway, during a recent speech by him to a crowd in a YWCA auditorium. Edwards somehow sidestepped the most pressing issues of our time. Not once did the War on Terror rear its troublesome head. He spoke briefly about nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, but only in the context of opportunities for making our wayward allies happy by working within the confines of international treaties.

In fact, his sole mention of Iraq had absolutely zero to do with the troops on the ground or his plans for securing the country. Rather, Sean Penn's former hangout came up only as part of a brief snit over corporate influence on the White House -- Halliburton, in particular.

Edwards never got around to Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan or al Qaeda. Nor did he explain what he would do to make sure we are not suffering under color-coded threats or carnage in the streets a decade from now. His 40-minute address was so devoid of attention to these issues that he made Howard Dean look like a hawk.

DURING THE Q&A, I thought someone would ask him about his vote for the Iraq resolution, or at least question how he would challenge Bush on national defense. At other candidate forums, this is often the only issue brought up. Not so with this crowd. No one wanted to mess with the sugar high from the cotton candy Edwards had been feeding them.

The senator's overwhelming obsession is his Two Americas Doctrine. There is, he explains, running his hand through his hair every few seconds for emphasis, one America "for those in positions of privilege and power who can basically get anything they want, anything they need, don't ever have to worry about anything" and another, less paradisiac one for "everyone else."

Edwards continues to press this point mercilessly. There are two school systems, two tax codes, two healthcare systems, two governments, even two economies. Somehow everyone at an Edwards event -- surgeon and nurse, teacher and farmer -- has ended up on the wrong side of this divide and he, John Edwards, is their only hope.

"I want to create wealth," Edwards assured us. "But unlike Bush, who wants to only create wealth for those who already have it, we want to create wealth and financial security for those who desperately need it." He told the crowd that the two parties are willing to let 35 million people wallow in poverty because poor people "for the most part don't vote."

Some strange statistics illustrated his point. "If you are a child in America today it is more likely your parents will file for bankruptcy than divorce," he said, raising the question of what's better: Having parents or money? "Let me say this in simple right and wrong, black and white terms," he continued. "I say no to kids going to bed hungry in America. I say no to kids not having clothes to keep them warm."

And nobody stood up to argue with him.

THE SENATOR SPENT quite a bit of time spinning his selfless 20 years of public service as a trial lawyer, as well. When he finally made the bar, he explained, "I was representing you, or someone just like you, and on the other side of the courtroom."

Edwards asked the audience to picture in their mind's eye "armies of big corporate lawyers, the best lawyers money can buy," to give them an idea of what they, and he, are up against. The self-litigated millionaire then hinted at why voters should cast their ballots for him.

"They would stand over on the other side, tucking in their vests and look over at me and say, 'What is he doing in here? Does he think he belongs in here with us?' And I beat 'em and I beat 'em and I beat 'em," he said.

Some people accuse him of having "big ideas," Edwards confessed, in an "aw shucks" sort of way. And he does make a lot of big promises: universal healthcare, a free first year of college for everyone in America, huge tax breaks for families already not paying taxes. But perhaps the biggest promise he makes is that he can beat George W. Bush without talking about national security in the post-9/11 era.

"When people ask, 'Is this the guy? Is this the guy who can beat Bush?'" Edwards told his supporters, "Here's what I want you to say, 'Yes, this is the guy who can beat George Bush everywhere in America. He can beat him in the East, in the West, in the Midwest, and, talking like this, he can beat him in the South.'"

And: "The South is not George Bush's backyard. It is my backyard."

The crowd went wild and I didn't want to spoil the mood, so I didn't grab the mike to ask: Wasn't the South Al Gore's backyard, too?

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