Thursday, August 26, 2004

John Edwards: Myths and Misperceptions

I wrote this after the Edwards' suspension speech in March, and posted it on Monday, March 29, 2004. A copy can be found here:

Most voters base their choices upon the information they glean from the news media. The quality of this information depends on the amount of effort journalists put into researching the candidates. Unfortunately, this time around (just like every other year, it seems) most of the information journalists got was from reading each other’s pieces and talking to each other. Even those journalists who traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire seem to have spent most of their time having meals with other journalists. Even when they interviewed "ordinary people" at campaign events, they invariably failed to cite exact words of their interviewees and, instead, put into their mouths the words they wanted to put there. I know, it happened to me, and I know a number of other people who complained in the same way: "I never said that! Quite the opposite, in fact." When the news media does such a shoddy job of doing its homework, the result is often a very distorted image of candidates and their positions. As an example, let us dissect the way media portrayed Senator John Edwards to see just how that portrayal deviated from the reality. Here are some of the myths and misperceptions about Edwards that permeated the media reporting during the past few months.

John Edwards is too young. John Edwards has just turned 51. Surprised? You thought he was 35? He is not - he just looks like it because he is fit and healthy and living an optimistic life. John F. Kennedy was 43 when he took office, Bill Clinton was 46. Overseas, our friend Tony Blair just turned 50 a couple of months ago, after several years in office. John Edwards was not even the youngest of this year’s crop of candidates - Al Sharpton is 49. If John Edwards was elected this year, then re-elected four years later, he would be leaving office at the age of 59 - no trace of senility, no loss of courage and drive. He would be on top of his game to the last day and I would sleep tight with him hovering around the red button. Remember Reagan?

John Edwards is too inexperienced. How do you define experience? Decades of politicking in the hallways of power? Government is all about law and John Edwards saw both sides of it. He spent last five years in the Senate writing, evaluating and voting for laws. He spent the previous 20 years interpreting, applying and defending the laws. He has seen it from both sides: how the laws are made from legal and political theory, and what real-world effects they have in practice. Is that lack of experience? Is feeling the effects of governmental legislation on one’s own skin somehow a less valuable experience than discussing them in the classrooms of Yale or on Capitol Hill? At the age of 11, John Edwards decided that he was going to become a lawyer so he could help people. Against all odds, he managed to fulfill his dream. He spent 20 years defending "little" people against the megacorporations. His cases often led to changes in rules and regulations of whole industries. Once burned, these corporations did not want to be vulnerable to another lawsuit like the one they just lost to John Edwards. Feeling that his work helps only one person at a time, and that many more people needed his help than he could ever have time to represent in court, Edwards decided that writing better laws might be a way for him to help more people than before. He ran for the Senate, and won that race, against huge odds. Once in the Senate, he saw first-hand how Washington works and was terrified at the influence of money. It did not take long for him to realize that the only way he could make a difference was to run for President. And so he did. Isn’t that just the KIND of experience one would want in a candidate?

John Edwards is too light on policy. Whoever said this did not do the homework of reading "Real Solutions for America." This is a booklet written by John (and Elizabeth) Edwards and published about a year ago, detailing all the policy proposals John was campaigning on. There was an article in The New Republic entitled "The Policy Wonk" - the title referred to John Edwards and for a good reason! The set of proposals found in this booklet are the most detailed plan any candidate put forward this year. Also, by virtue of having it published, John Edwards did not give himself the luxury of making changes to it as the campaign progressed - he knew it was the best plan and he stuck to it throughout the year. Why was it the best? It was the only platform for which the money adds up. It was the only platform that was moderate enough to pass through a sharply divided Congress, yet allowed for gradual and step-wise movement towards more progressive legislation as the political and economic climate may allow it in the future. In addition to the "Real Solutions," Edwards made a number of specific policy speeches, the text of which can still be found on his campaign website. Read them and then ask yourself: Is he too light? Oh no, the guy is a genius! Making this statement also shows that the journalist uttering it did not follow the campaigns all along. The so-called "Two Americas" stump speech, repeated over and over in Iowa and beyond, was Edwards’ closing statement - an emotional appeal to the voters. Taking a chapter out of Cicero, Edwards perfected his oratory and gave his audience what they came to hear (some repeatedly) - the famous "Two Americas" speech. But before that, Edwards had another speech - the "Son of a Millworker" speech. Have you listened to that one? It is chockfull of details of his policy proposals. If you ever heard it you would know there is nothing ‘thin’ or ‘lightweight’ about John Edwards.

John Edwards is ’thin’ on foreign policy. John Edwards is sitting on the Senate Intelligence Committee. John Edwards traveled to Europe and the Middle East and talked to various heads of states. John Edwards has some of the best advisors on foreign policy. John Edwards has more foreign policy experience than Carter, Clinton or G.W.Bush had at the time they assumed the office. The idea that times are somehow different now, after 9/11, is an idea promulgated by the Republicans. It is a piece of their politics of fear, intended to make Bush look brave and good, and also intended to distract the audience away from the disastrous economy. Electoral loss by Bush in November will in itself raise our security by a few notches, no matter who gets elected instead. So much of so-called America-hatred around the world is really Bush-hatred. Arrogant foreign policy of the Bush administration is what got us in this position in the first place. I’d love to see John Edwards building coalitions with heads of state and entering into various agreements that are good for America and good for the world. On the other hand, the capture of Saddam Hussein, thought to provide a boost for the President’s approval ratings, did just the opposite. Feeling safer after the capture, the voters turned their attention instead to bread-and-butter issues of economy, jobs, deficit and healthcare. Check the exit polls from Iowa if you do not believe me. Imminent capture of Osama bin Laden, also thought to be a boost for President Bush, may have an even greater effect in the same direction - feeling of greater security allowing the voters to look at economy again. Having foreign policy as a centerpiece of this year’s elections may not be what the electorate is looking for, after all. If John Edwards was the nominee, he would have already switched the electoral battlefield onto the domestic issues where Bush is most vulnerable, and the voters would appreciate that move.

John Edwards is vulnerable because he is a trial lawyer. Whoever says this has not done their homework of reading John Edwards’ book "Four Trials." This ploy did not work for Lauch Faircloth (incumbent Senator who Edwards defeated in 1998), and will not work for anyone else either. In every court case, there are two sides. John Edwards was always on the side of an ordinary citizen and against the side of huge corporations. People like John Edwards are the last glimmer of hope to people who were wronged or injured by soulless and heartless corporate greed. Most big donors to the Edwards campaign are trial lawyers, too. If he was a physician, I guess physicians would be his greatest donors. Trial lawyers around the country know and respect John Edwards, many know him personally, or have studied his cases in law school. A glance at the lists of lawyers donating to various campaigns shows that people who donated to Edwards are mostly lawyers whose job is to represent ordinary Americans against the big corporations. On the other hand, donors to Bush and Cheney tend to be lawyers who work for big corporations ensuring that the rights of ordinary people are squashed. On the positive side, John Edwards did not become a successful trial lawyer for nothing. One of the reasons he was not in the media spotlight may be the fact that he did not provide anything exciting to report - no screams, no off-the-record-open-mic statements, no controversies. It is the disciplined mind of a lawyer that kept him on message 24/7. That kind of disciplined yet quick-on-its-feet mind would be quite an asset in the debates against Dick Cheney in the fall, as well as in selling his message to the American people.

John Edwards is too nice to fight against Cheney. The pundits are so used to gladiator fights in the political Coliseum, they are unable to fathom that a different strategy may be even more effective. Countering an attack with a counterattack makes both sides look childish and mean, repelling the audience further away from the political process. Countering an attack with flattery disarms the opponent. Responding to a flattery with an attack makes the attacker look REALLY bad. Following the flattery with a kindly spoken analysis of the opponent’s positions makes a point that the audience is more likely to believe in than an attack. It is the method of driving one’s knife into your opponent’s heart with a smile on your face. That is an example of linguistic aikido - harsher the opponent’s attack, easier it is to throw him into a pile on the floor while retaining a completely relaxed composure. John Edwards did not win all those court cases by being nice. He is a master of linguistic aikido. I will really enjoyed watching him this fall, smiling on stage with Cheney, tricking the Vice-President into making two opposite statements within one minute, into stating an obvious lie, into making an outrageous un-American statement that would doom his campaign's re-election. I look forward to the chance to see his mastery in action against Dick Cheney. We are so used to the politics of testosterone - the hormone of aggression - that we cannot comprehend that there may be another way to win political battles. John Edwards is oozing oxytocin and vasopressin - hormones of love and attachment - that made everyone who saw him speak fall in love with him. While many people will vote against Bush-Cheney in November, even more will vote for Kerry-Edwards. Many Independents, moderate Republicans, and political newcomers fell in love with Edwards and the optimism he projected. If you do not believe me, dig through the archives of the official Edwards blog (, as well as the new Edwards grassroots organization (

John Edwards was running for Vice President all along. John Edwards is running for the Veep slot NOW. He was certainly running for the gold until Super Tuesday. Inability of pundits to understand his strategy made them think, wrongly, that he was running for VP. This strategy, that made it so difficult for him to win the primaries, would have worked wonders in the general election, if only someone explained it to the journalists who could then explain it to the voters.

John Edwards was running on trade and poverty issues. Go to the C-span website and watch the video clips of Edwards’ stump speeches. Watch carefully for the audience reactions. Trade issues came to the fore only late in the campaign cycle, when it was obvious that John Kerry was in the lead and that the two Johns had greatest policy differences in the area of trade. It was also a very important issue in states like Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio, where the two Johns had to differentiate themselves on trade, more than on any other topic. However, the trade portion of the speech did not get the greatest applause. Poverty, a long-abandoned issue that Edwards courageously brought back into presidential politics, was also received heartily, but again, that was not a trigger for the loudest applause. What really got people excited was the portion of the speech in which Edwards described how he would kick the money out of politics. As a Washington outsider, never accepting donations from Washington lobbyists or PACs, he was not in debt to anyone but the individual Americans. His proposals on cutting the influence of lobbyists and big business, as well as the method he was planning to use, if elected, to push these reforms through, gave the audience the sense that it may still be worth paying attention to politics, that the notion that both major parties are the same because they are in bed with powerful interests may change if Edwards gets elected. Hope that there is a chance that politics can be taken away from megacorporations and given back to the American people was the main reason so many people voted for Edwards, and will vote for Kerry-Edwards in November.

John Edwards was talking about Two Americas in his speeches. Journalists live in the present. The best ones also have a grasp of the past. The notion of the future seems as foreign to them as the third dimension was to the Square in Abbott’s "Flatland". John Edwards’ speech was not about Two Americas. It was about One America. His whole campaign was not about analyzing the past and present, it was about the vision for the future. The mention of two Americas in his speech was just a starting point, a reminder of current situation, from which we can go towards his vision of One America - the core idea of his campaign. While all the other candidates kept comparing their past accomplishments, voters tuned out. When a candidate showed up talking about plans for the future and ways to get there, voters tuned in - that is what they were waiting for all along. Unlike anyone else, John Edwards represented hope and a vision for the future of America we can all be proud of.

John Edwards is a liberal/centrist/moderate/conservative Democrat. So, which one is he? One analysis I recently read stated that John Edwards is a progressive who skillfully disguised his liberal leanings under a guise of conservatism in order to appeal to the Southern Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans who realized that Bush is not a conservative. Accent on personal responsibility, fiscal responsibility, and civil liberties - the core conservative (I would say American) values - made Edwards seem more conservative than Bush, or so this theory says. My own theory is that Edwards is so non-ideological that he really does not belong anywhere on that spectrum. I see him primarily as a pragmatic - an engineer or a physician who diagnoses the problem and designs the optimal solution. Reading "Real Solutions" really drives that point through quite forcefully.

All things being equal, don’t you think that correct portrayal of John Edwards by the media would have resulted in him clinching the nomination? If you knew the facts about Edwards, wouldn’t you have voted for him? Isn’t it scary that corporate-owned media decided for us who our President is going to be? What happened to our democracy? How can we take it back? We can elect John Kerry for President and John Edwards for Vice-President on November 2, 2004. And this is what we will do.

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