Empty words won’t beat Bush

Jun 18, 2003 at 12:00 am

The first thing you notice about U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, one of the major Democratic candidates for president, is how devastatingly handsome he is.

He is boyish, young, with a runner’s physique, and one glance at him makes everybody who knows their history think of John F. Kennedy. He has a seemingly perfect family and an amazing life story. He is also down-to-earth, smart, poised and sophisticated, and yet is a good conversationalist with the common touch.

During a small private dinner party in Bloomfield Hills the other night he told me flatly, “If I don’t get the nomination, Bush wins.” There is, indeed, some reason to think he might be right about that. What I wanted to hear, however, was ... why?

Why John Edwards? Not why he could win, but why he really wanted the job?

What I wanted to hear, in the famous words of JFK, was what could he do for his country. What can he do for this nation that no one else can or will?

What crucial issue — health care, our sagging schools, our dying cities — would he put forth every fiber of his being to solve, or to change our nation’s course?

Which issue is the heart and soul of his campaign?

Revealingly perhaps, that never came up. Strategy was discussed; possible running mates; who was supporting who.

But not what may be most important. This was not, it should be said, a formal interview. This was the candidate relaxing with some well-connected, well-heeled people sympathetic to his candidacy and interested in knowing more about it.

Yet I expected at some point to see the passion — or outrage — that you would expect of anyone crazy enough to undertake something as grueling as a presidential campaign. Didn’t happen. One would almost desperately like to be able to believe in John Edwards. Here is a guy whose father worked in a textile mill. He was the first of his family to go to college and then to law school, where he took up personal injury law.

He worked like a demon, won lots of money for injured people, and became rich himself. He married — and stayed married to — a law school classmate four years older than he was. They had a son and a daughter. Tragedy struck the family; the son, Wade Edwards, was killed in an auto accident right after he got his license.

That sort of thing often ruins marriages. John and Elizabeth Edwards decided to have two more babies instead, the last one born when she was older than 50. While that was going on, he ran for the Senate, taking on and beating a right-wing incumbent, a clone of Jesse Helms, in a solidly Republican state.

Edwards has a mostly progressive voting record and the magic of geography. When it comes to electing a president, the first problem is electoral math. Since 1960, no Democratic nominee from outside the South has been elected president.

Yet nobody should be elected without a vision either. So I went to johnedwards2004.com to see what it says about the so-called vision thing. At length I found it.


I believe we need to offer a vision for America anchored in our enduring values but energized with new ideas. We should be proud of what we believe — steadfast in our principles, but unfettered in our thinking. We need to tell it like we see it, and offer real solutions. We need to come together around a commitment to restore the promise of America for the people who make this country ... they want their leaders to honor their values, have the courage of their convictions, keep their country safe and strong, be smart with their money, and give them a chance to make the most of their future.


Ghastly, yes? Strom Thurmond, Joe Stalin, Huey P. Newton and L. Brooks Patterson could all agree to that. This is almost a parody of meaningless rhetoric, which says nothing and says it at great length. That’s a small fragment, by the way; it goes on for screen after screen. Well, there is no law that says you can’t be banal.

Yet there is a law that says, generally speaking, you can’t beat something with nothing. The Bushies are in the saddle, have an ominous agenda, have much of the nation thinking he is a great wartime leader, and are counting on a second-term landslide.

Falling on the football doesn’t work if you are behind. Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment, in this state as elsewhere, is quietly agreeing Sen. John Kerry, a somewhat aloof senator from Massachusetts, should be their candidate next year.

Kerry was a Vietnam War hero, and they think that neutralizes the national security issue. His second wife, the widow of a Republican senator killed in a plane crash (John Heinz), inherited a $600 million Heinz ketchup fortune.

When I saw Kerry earlier this year, before the war, he had a well-developed presentation and an effective biopic of his life that he shows everywhere he goes.

He said all the right words, but stirred not an extra heartbeat. Much of it was sensible. But too much of what it boiled down to was, essentially, “I’m not as bad as Bush.” That won’t cut it. If there is hope, it will lie in challenging America by saying “this is what we are going to do together. Here’s what we are going to do to make this a better place and get a better future for you and your kids.”

There’s time left, but not too much time, for both the Democrats and the nation. We‘ve seen how this administration behaved after a disputed election in which they lost the popular vote and were installed by a partisan court.

Imagine what they’d be like after a landslide.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]