Windham, NH -
The address for today's house party, the last of four campaign stops for John Edwards, was 2 Camelot Road. Fitting for a young candidate with a loving wife and a couple of cute youngsters in tow. Sitting down in one of the many folded chairs laid out in concentric circles in the backyard of our host, I saw to the left of me a well-manicured lawn befitting the country club a half mile away and to the right of me a brush pile below an oak tree and a big old red wooden barn. Welcome to Southern New Hampshire, where old New England meets New Suburbia. It was also an interesting placement for the man who has touted the occurrence of Two Americas. I'll tell you about my two Americas - the barn and woods America that Washington has long since forgotten about, and the cul-de-sac and new car American that prevails throughout. I digress.
The yard sat at the bottom of a steep, landscaped hill marked with a feeble brick path cutting through the bark dust. As per the usual campaign stop fanfare, I expected Senator Edwards to come hopping through the screen door at the back of the house. Instead he casually stepped down the path and walked directly into the center of the seating arrangement. This was the Democratic party's latest Vice Presidential candidate, but there was no booming theme song blasting through stand-up speakers. Shocking, in fact, considering the inseparable bond created between John Edwards and John Mellencamp just three short years ago. No, this time it was just a man in blue jeans (Levi's, size 34-32), a blue button up shirt, a Livestrong band and running watch on his left wrist, and brown shoes squinting into the distance while the party host read some brief biographical remarks about Edwards.
As soon as John took over the microphone he touted the four things that were most important to him as a Presidential candidate. First was to fix what's wrong with Washington. "It is rigged," he said, against the people. Populists, perk up your ears. He claimed that the insurance, drug and oil industries are embedded in the system to keep people from getting what they need in favor of the powerful and money hungry lobbies. Much like terrorists (my metaphor, not his), he went on to say, there is no negotiating with these guys. They only understand bullying, which is what they have been doing to the people for years. Meanwhile, he made the point that "we need universal health care. It is the only answer." The two points he touted from his plan were the need to give mental health as much importance as physical health, and the ability to take health care with you if you move or leave your job. In a jab against Hillary, he insisted that changing one insider for another is not going to change the way things have been done for years. Edwards, though, will fight. Edwards the everyman. Edwards the heavy hitter.
After softening up the big bullies Edwards moved on to his second priority, the climate crisis. He restated the party line that we have to dramatically cut our carbon emissions, and glossed over the workings of the cap-and-trade mechanism with which to do so. Similar to Chris Dodd, he emphasized that the proceeds from a carbon auction would go to help transform the rest of the America into a more sustainable place. He, almost reluctantly, closed with his new tagline that America needs to be patriotic about something other than war.
His third point was to touch on the economic disparity here in America. As Edwards put it, we have 2 Americas - the super wealthy who have tax breaks and offshore accounts, and then everyone else. This time his Two Americas notion seemed to try to distance himself from the role of a class warrior. He wasn't saying rich and poor, instead talking about super rich. Maybe that is what you have to do to differentiate between his $30 million and the $31 that presumably marks the boundaries between Two Americas. He said he would push for a $9.50 Federal minimum wage, and talked about bolstering the strength of unions in America that have been weakened lately, and of a Federal program to match the savings of middle class Americans to create incentive for them to earn capital and bootstrap themselves into a less anxious financial state.
That's when the going got weird. Edwards' fourth priority was to end the damage done by the Bush Presidency and do some good in the world. 1st day - close Guantanamo, putting him at direct odds with Mitt Romney. He said the same thing about stopping torture before pausing, placing his hand on his forehead and saying, "what a sad sate of affairs" we have that we "even need to talk about torture" when running for President. He spoke briefly of AIDS and Darfur genocide before telling us that the only way change will happen is if we all do it together. The civil rights movement started, he said, in communities just like this. So did the movement to end Vietnam, and to end the war in Iraq. He tried to incense the crowd to move and shake, but it was clear he had other things on his mind. Earlier, he had mentioned that he wanted to tell a story that would tie a lot of these things together, and in a lot of ways it seemed like he was just trying to get through the stump speech (which, admittedly, was relatively short) in order to call forth the anecdote.
At that point Edwards moved forcefully into his clear strength. He rhetorically asked the audience if he could tell a story about a man he met on his recent poverty tour. This fellow, he told us, was born with a cleft palate. Due to the severity of the condition and a lack of insurance to pay for an operation to fix it, the guy was unable to speak for much of his life. Edwards continued to gain more and more passion as the story went on. Although the man was unable to speak for much of his life, he was very proud of his new found ability to talk. And then, the clincher. Edwards told us that the man was 51 years old. Yet he had just gained the ability to speak one year ago, at age 50. "Outrageous!" Edwards claimed, that we can live in a country where a man can go fifty years without the ability to talk strictly due to his poverty and lack of available health care. Truly. Stories like this are so visceral, so shocking, so harmonious to the heart strings that even my callous, grizzled mug was pushed to the brink of tears.
But sympathy was not the only emotion on stage. In fact, as Edwards passionate oratory roared in scorn toward the system it became clear that anger and outrage were the stars. Bleeding heart liberal may be a derogatory term among the right, but the blood here was fiery red. Everything started to swirl in my head: the squinting, almost impatient look on the former Senator's face during introductions; the impatient stump speech; the incredulity toward the current administration. What we had here was no ordinary man. It was a man on a mission.
Here Edwards moved to the crowd for some Q&A. No doubt he counted on some questions about health care, education and immigration. What he didn't count on was the twisted vibe that had no overtaken the entire crowd. After a question about labor protection, John was asked about immigration. He more or less gave a standard answer until the final part where he demanded that illegal immigrants looking for citizenship learn English. Classic New Hampshire, the crowd roared in approval in one of the few applause-inducing lines of the night. Edwards then spoke to school choice within a public system, touting magnet and charter schools for poor cities. But to close it off, he mentioned that under performing schools should have an "education SWAT team" sent to them in order to fix it. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Without the specifics I'll keep my questions to a minimum, but the line gave me a verrrry NCLB feeling and I didn't like it.
But right as I was trying to get over the SWAT team, Edwards called on a fat Hispanic man sitting about five seats away from me wearing a makeshift Kerry/Edwards shirt. The man stood up, told of his allegiance to the 2004 ticket, his 40-year citizenship, and his desire to ask two questions at once. After about 90 seconds of rambling - first about predatory lenders and then about a Bush/Cheney 2004 conspiracy - it became abundantly clear that this guy was nuts Edwards realized this, and implored the man to get around to asking the question. It didn't work. Edwards cut in again, but to no avail. Finally, John Edwards drew forth his wrath and told the man, "why don't you sit down and listen to me!" to which the man replied, sounding an awful lot like Milton Waddams, "don't tell me what to do John." Halfway through this exchange, a few trickles of rain began to fall.
It was surreal. Everyone in the crowd wanted this guy to shut up, and simultaneously sat at the edge of our seats wondering what was going to happen next. Would this fat man rush John Edwards? Would Edwards eat this poor crazy man's lunch? Would the question ever end? After some terse words, the supporter finally ceased his babble. Edwards acknowledged (much to my surprise) his questions, stating that he wanted a full investigation into Ohio back in 2004, then approached the man and shook his hand, thanking him for his concern.
The next question came about Edwards' housing policy for the homeless and poor, to give federal housing grants that they might move to better places. But it wasn't so simple. The questioner prefaced her question with a long story about a specific homeless shelter for women in Washington, DC, continuing on and on about it's successes. Emboldened and fired up by Edwards actions, the crowd began to heckle her. "Hurry up, we all have questions, too!" one woman shouted. "Use the microphone! It's not an ice cream cone!" suggested the pro-union man standing next to her. The hyenas were unleashed!
To follow that up was a question from a woman who sounded very scared and confused, wondering if the conspiracy theories were true, that the government knew the true cause of autism. John Edwards could only politely say that he doubted such claims. Now the rain was really threatening.
Fortunately, a staffer chimed in from the back that Edwards could only take one more question. It was a softball, allowing him to toss out a few red meat Cheney jokes. At that point he asked us for our vote and thanked us for coming. As is customary a few people approached for a handshake, but what I hadn't seen before was the matinee pin-up factor. Handfuls of middle aged women rushed the stage, awkwardly clutching their digital cameras and hollering at young John Edwards for a photo with his arm around them. He consistently obliged, creating an almost circus-like scene. These women continued to ask for pictures, all the while blurting out their indiscreet romantic desires. Meanwhile, everyone started barking out questions, and Edwards acknowledged them all, often scolding them to wait their turn. Realizing the cranky mood, I merely jammed my hand into the fray, thanked him for coming with only a handshake and no words in return. His handshake was firm. The firmest, in fact, of all the candidates to date. But it was not as firm as his glare.
It was his glare that stuck in my mind, the way he looked around shooting down questions and the way he looked when he was talking about the 50 year old man without speech. It was the look of a man who had just spent four days in some of the poorest cities in America. It was the look of a man who announced his candidacy from the Eighth Ward in New Orleans. It was the look of a man who was mad as hell, and wasn't gonna take it anymore. Will America?
Ohhh Justice will be served /And the battle will rage / This big dog will fight / When you rattle his cage / And you'll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way
Sure, they're different battles, but I still think that "they" had better watch out for a focused boot one of these days. Sooner rather than later.
But I must conclude with Happy 30th Anniversary wishes for John and Elizabeth. Here's to 30 more! Now, is it ironic that they dine each year at Wendy's restaurant, known to be the most conservative, environmentally unsound, anti-choice of all fast food eateries? Hell no. They make a damn good Spicy Chicken Sandwich. Mmmmm, delicious.
Please also see my initial John Edwards post, one of the first ever on 3Q.