“I don’t think God is through with me,” John Edwards said after his criminal trial on campaign finance reform ended with a hung jury. Maybe not, but American politics certainly is. Edwards may yet return to his lawyer career but Richard Nixon will return to public office before he does.
The amazing thing is that anyone ever thought he was a political star in the first place. Edwards has one of the most remarkably unimpressive political résumés of any person to become a major political figure in the last few decades. That serious people thought he was ever prime presidential timber is a greater indictment of our political system than any of Edwards’s own transgressions.
And yet many supposedly savvy pundits lavished praise on Edwards: Here’s Slate.com’s William Saletan in 2003 pondering why Edwards’s presidential foray was going nowhere:
Why Edwards hasn’t climbed out of the pack is a mystery to me. Beyond his superficial assets — good looks, youth, Southern heritage — he’s got an agile mind and a natural ability to relate to people. He’s put together a sensible set of policies… (maybe) Edwards will get to carry his banner into the general election. But if he doesn’t, whoever beats him should pick it up and carry it in his stead.
Here’s a thought: If the politician is failing despite his many fine qualities maybe you should reexamine whether he really has those qualities.
Let’s review the record:
The foundation of Edwards’s reputation is that he was allegedly a brilliant trial attorney, a kind of living, breathing John Grisham character taking on the big and powerful for the sake of the poor and downtrodden.
So the story goes. Edwards did win some pretty big cases against big corporations. It has never been clear — to me anyway – why this was more laudable than righting wrongs that do not involve deep-pocketed defendants. I mean, a person screwed out of their savings is suffering the same whether it was done by MegaEvil Co., or a single con artist. Somehow though the latter cases don’t seem to attract as many lawyers like Edwards. But I digress…
We are supposed to believe that Edwards was a great orator and won those cases through the sheer brilliance of his closing arguments. Well, I don’t buy it. Real life is not like the movies. Surely the facts in those cases and the relevant law had as much to do, if not more, with the verdicts. My guess is that Edwards’s real brilliance was sniffing out those cases and latching onto them (and their contingency fees) before other lawyers.
If Edwards was such a great orator, then why haven’t any of his speeches been remembered? The only one we do remember is his “Two Americas” spiel and the main reason for that is it renders his hypocrisy so clear. Note to political journalists: Convincing a captive audience of 12 people who are required to render yes/no judgments is not the same thing as winning over the masses.
Remember, Edwards won only one political race in his entire career: his 1998 Senate race in North Carolina. Granted he won office on his first try, but he was running in what turned out to be a terrible year for Republicans (having overestimated the public’s eagerness to impeach Bill Clinton). He ran against Lauch Faircloth, a crusty caricature of an old-time southern pol who was essentially Jesse Helms without charisma. Even so, the race was close, with Edwards edging Faircloth out just 51-47%. In 2004, rather than face potential defeat, he opted not to run again.
Once in office, Edwards distinguished himself mostly by making it clear how little interest he had in being a legislator. He had his sights set on the White House from the start and couldn’t be bothered with the tedious process of passing noteworthy bills or associating himself with any particular issue or cause besides himself.
Nor did he show particularly sharp political skills. His most noteworthy action as senator was voting for the Iraq War resolution, on the apparent belief this demonstration of bipartisanship would boost him. He spent most of the rest of his political career apologizing for it to any Democratic audience that would listen.
With less than one term under his belt, Edwards made his first presidential bid in 2004, only to have Howard Dean steal his thunder. Edwards got a second chance when eventual nominee John Kerry picked him to be the vice presidential candidate. The theory was Edwards would help the Democratic ticket make inroads into southern red states. On Election Day, he couldn’t even put his home state in the donkey party’s column.
In his 2008 White House bid, he ran a perpetually distant third in the Democratic primary. Edwards by this time had reinvented himself into a tough-talking blue-collar populist. He proceeded to lose the blue-collar vote to that noted voice of the common man, Hillary Clinton. This was as Clinton herself was flailing in her efforts to stop Barack Obama’s momentum.
Working class people took one look at this ambulance-chasing pretty-boy saw him for the shallow hack he was and paid him no mind. Edwards’s real constituency was his fellow wealthy upper-class whites, the types who populate the New York Times editorial pages and opinion journals like Slate.com and the New Republic. His “Two Americas” line appealed to their liberal guilt and sense of noblesse oblige. There just aren’t nearly enough of them to win an election.