PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire -- Halfway through his speech, perfect bone structure complemented by the soft light of the bar as he stood aloft the crowd on a stuffed chair, one leg manfully perched on the arm as he motioned grandly to friends, Romans, and countrymen alike, John Edwards put a finger to his lip and paused.
"This is controversial, but I believe it so strongly," America's foremost class war enthusiast intoned darkly. "I get mixed reactions to it, so I warn you in advance." A hush fell over the rapt crowd. "I think we have a fundamental question to ask ourselves as Americans," Edwards said finally. "Do we really believe in an America where all of us have equal worth? Because I believe it to my soul. I believe every single person in this room is equal value."
Hold on a second...Did this beautifully coiffed one-term Senator-slash-ex-vice-presidential candidate really just pick a fight with America's vast and ever-burgeoning inequality lobby?
"This is personal to me," Edwards added. "My father never went to college, worked in mills all his life. He's worth every bit as much as any President of the United States...more than the one we've got right now, actually."
That's better. The room erupted into huge cheers for...for inequality!
"If we believe it, when are we going to start living together?" Edwards demanded of the gathered upper middle class whites whose interaction with people of both color and lesser means in this city is almost entirely facilitated by cable television. A cheekier skeptic might have shouted, "Who? Presidents and mill workers?" but instead the question lingered in the air, unanswered, awaiting the explication it soon received.
"A flood of whites move out to the suburbs, send their kids to private schools," he continued. "Or they move into the richest areas of town. This is so unhealthy. It is unhealthy for our democracy. It is unhealthy for our country."
It's a fascinating argument from someone who bought a 100-acre plot in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, last year, which he has presumably not adapted into a refugee camp for the Other Americans. Faster than you can say "Plantation!" Master John is living on one, but he'd apparently really like to see the rest of the riffraff integrated. Still, even in the torrents of applause that followed, the class warrior refused to back down, adding several minutes later, "There's a basic question" -- Edwards self-identifies almost every question he asks as "basic" -- "we have got to ask ourselves: Do we want families to earn a decent living to help strengthen the middle class and have health-care coverage or do we want them to live in poverty?"
Shockingly, no one from the pro-poverty, Let Them Eat Cake contingent spoke up. Maybe they were downstairs getting a drink with the aforementioned scions of the inequality lobby.
WHATEVER THE DRAWBACKS OF neo-plantation life -- it's a good thing his mill worker father taught him "the value of a hard day's work," because even with shrubs, that is a lot of lawn to mow -- there are clearly political benefits as well.
As a newly minted "outsider," Edwards is now able to begin sentences with phrases such as, "I'll tell you something that crowd of politicians in Washington does not know..." Like a mobster with several degrees of separation between himself and his hit man, Edwards can gloat Democratic Party needs to "show some backbone and strength" without being personally tainted by association. He can rail he's "not interested in being in a Democratic Party that is a party of incrementalism," as if he wasn't perfectly happy to be just that two years ago.
"We need to quit listening to the consultants, quit listening to the pollsters," he said, firing a shot over the bow of the S.S. Kerry-Shrum. "Listen, if you're looking at yesterday's poll to figure out what you're supposed to say you're not leading. You're following."
His wariness is understandable. The last time Edwards followed somebody he, in his own words, "ended up with some time on my hands, not by choice." Yet if his appearance at a Democracy for New Hampshire fundraiser -- a nonpartisan group that, like most nonpartisan groups in the post-campaign finance era is strictly partisan -- is any indication, Edwards should be a much more formidable candidate this time around. Drawing 150 people to a week night event is nothing to frown at this early in the cycle, but that each attendee also paid $25 at the door is downright impressive.
Edwards' stumping abilities have improved exponentially even if his prescription for societal ills remains spoon-deep -- hence all the "very basic" questions, "very simple" ideas, and "let me say this in the simplest way I know how" bromides festooning his speeches. To his credit he's dropped "two Americas" as a rhetorical device even if the overall song remains the same. Hence, the ineffectiveness of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty as "a lie." It is America's role to end poverty worldwide. He wants to see more unions organized and cited Boston, where hotel workers "are organized because the mayor requires it," as a model. (I wonder when there will be Democracy for Massachusetts.) Exxon profits and Katrina response were major hubs in his speech.
The former senator, never a heavyweight on foreign policy, ignored most international issues but did bring up genocide in Sudan, lamenting, "Where is America? That's exactly right, we're in Iraq." Right...we're in Iraq -- "mired down in that God-awful mess," as Edwards described it -- where...they're still uncovering mass graves...from genocide.
"THERE IS A HUNGER IN AMERICA; a hunger to be inspired again," Edwards said.
And come to think of it, I could feel a palpable hunger in the room that night, rising up around me like a thick mist: The hunger of 150 people who paid $25 to get into an event catered by someone with a true blue dedication to cracker diversity and only a cash bar to wash it down.
But, then, most come not for the wafers, but to hear what wonders they are doing for the Other America. Who knew it was as easy as eating some cheese and crackers?