. . . Wednesday March 3, 2004

The Unnatural

At a dinner a couple years ago, back when talk of Iowa and New Hampshire was but a mere whisper, I happened to be seated next to a guy who had worked on John Edwards’ North Carolina campaign. At that point, there was already some buzz about this smooth-talking natural from the South who was likely to rent a bus and give the Democrat nomination process a serious go. When I asked for some of the inside scoop on the Senator, the guy sitting next to me told a single story.

During a pivotal period in his run for the Senate, Edwards had been inadvertently scheduled for an important campaign event that included supporters and potential supporters who expected him there, period. But Edwards was already booked during that block of time. It happened to be on a Sunday morning just when he always went to Church. Some on his staff explained that this was no problem. In fact, the Senator could turn the double-booking into an advantage. Edwards merely had to publicize the fact that he was unwilling to miss Church that morning, and he would simultaneously be able to get out of the other event and more importantly, position himself well among religious voters who would be impressed that Edwards wasn’t the type to put politics above more important Sunday morning rituals. Easy fix, right?

For Edwards, wrong. The Senator had a long-standing policy of keeping religion out of politics and never using his faith as a magnet for votes. So he went to Church, skipped the event and took the heat. Turns out the political natural everyone would soon be talking about wasn’t so politically natural after all.

I don’t know if Edwards was really ready to run in the general election this year. He was certainly the campaign’s most engaging speaker and he filled an important void (and one Kerry must now fill himself if he hopes to win in November). But he never made up enough ground when it came to developing foreign policy expertise and establishing that his boyish good looks actually hid a boatload of gravitas. He was always better when he was working off the script. Today, I’m not even sure he’s the best choice to complete the Kerry ticket.

But give the guy some serious credit. He is charming, but he is not slick. As he said during his campaign suspension speech: “Those of you who cast your votes for me cast your votes for a new kind of politics. You wanted a positive campaign, and you got one for a change.” Hard to argue with that right? Edwards gave the speech at the high school once attended by his son who was killed in a car accident at the age of sixteen. Ever hear Edwards try to tug the heart-strings by working that personal loss into a stump speech?

He is right about the two Americas but he needs to move beyond that on other issues (and beyond the mill story which often showed up in answers to questions unrelated to his past or the economy or anything else that could be connected to the mill). And his political arms may not yet be strong enough to lift this country up. But Edwards will be back and rightly so. For now, we the jury raise a decidedly half-full glass to a clean and positive campaign well run.

Concentration is important!