The Real Real Deal

While John Kerry suffers from "terminal Senatitis," John Edwards exudes life and optimism

Over two days I saw John Edwards and John Kerry speak at Dartmouth College. Edwards exhilarated my wife and me and the rest of the audience. We left the Kerry event before it ended and would have gone earlier if we had not hooked a ride with a more-patient friend—for we were bored, disappointed, and angry. Kerry has congratulated himself for abandoning "Washingtonese," but he was premature.

How, we wondered aloud driving home, could a man in public life for decades, running for President for more than a year, not do better than this? How could he say things like, "Two-hundred percent of poverty" or refer to his chairmanship of a Senate committee as—if I heard correctly—"Foreign Ops"? When he was served up a home-run pitch, "Why is this election so historic?", how could he begin so promisingly—"Three words. The Supreme Court"— but then maunder on inconsequently, satisfied with hitting a single? Why, above all, is he still running on his résumé? We know he's qualified to be President; his job as a candidate is to make us want him to be President.

As a personal-injury trial lawyer, John Edwards has made millions from his ability to persuade juries of ordinary Americans—by stirring their hearts with words, gesture, and sincerity. In contrast, John Kerry suffers from terminal Senatitis. Senators speak to themselves. Their colleagues don't listen to them. They can't see a single face in the galleries. The tradition of unlimited debate encourages prolixity. Senators talk (and talk) not to persuade but to justify their votes, and they inveterately sound defensive. Asked how an advocate of programs to help children could "favor ... partial birth abortion," Kerry caviled that he did not "favor" it; then he quoted the exact language of a resolution he supported allowing the practice under narrowly delineated conditions—in short, he justified his vote. Edwards would have evoked the agony of a woman faced with severe harm if she carried her baby to term—wanting that baby more than anything in the world and then being told that bearing it could kill or maim her. That is the stuff of tragedy, not legislation-speak. Kerry was asked why so few Senators have been elected President, and his answer on abortion showed why.

Again and again, in his Dartmouth speech, Edwards created waves of applause with his precise darts of language—"It's wrong!", "We can do better than this!", "Join our cause!". Kerry, who buried his applause lines in the gray lava of his monotone, got his loudest cheers when he entered the room. Once he opened his mouth the energy began to seep away—at any rate, in the "overflow" room from where we watched Kerry on a giant screen. Listening to him, I saw a long line of Democratic bores—Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Bradley, Gore—who lost because people could not bear listening to them. John Kerry belongs in their dreary company. I fear he could talk his way out of victory—that, excited by his résumé, his panache as a war hero, Americans from coast to coast will be disappointed in the real man; that, just as we did at Dartmouth, they will long for him to stop his answers at the one-minute mark and by minute two will have tuned out and by minute three will pine for the terse nullity of George W. Bush.

Kerry has a campaign slogan, The Real Deal, that—so he told a voter at a Claremont town meeting who'd asked if he meant to evoke FDR's New Deal—refers to himself. He's the real deal. But Edwards is the first Democrat in my lifetime who has a campaign theme, the Two Americas—"one for the privileged who get everything they want, and one for everybody else who struggle for the things they need"—that is at once a moral X-ray of American society and a political cudgel to beat that son and symbol of privilege George W. Bush.

Two Americas, with two economies. Over the past twenty years, Edwards writes in a sixty-page pamphlet outlining his positions, the economy has divided, with the top 1 percent flourishing and the middle class "sinking"—"one in seven families with children will go bankrupt this decade." Two Americas, with two tax systems. "Thanks to tax loopholes, the 400 top-paid Americans in 2000 paid only 22 percent of their income in taxes, about the same as a person making $125,000. Meanwhile, George Bush is shifting the tax burden from wealth to work." Two Americas, with two school systems—"one for the affluent, one for everybody else." And with two health systems—"unlimited care for the privileged, rationed care and rising costs for everyone else." Two Americas, with two governments—one for insiders and big campaign contributors, who get what they pay for; the other for the rest of us, who get ignored. Edwards's metaphor is proof against a rising stock market and buoyant but jobless growth. The Two Americas theme speaks to an abiding condition. Edwards's pamphlet abounds in proposals to end this division in life-chances and make America one.

Presidential politics turns on personality. Kerry—haggard, a knight of the woeful countenance—lacks vitality, the aura of promise. Edwards's campaign pitch is all about optimism—"We can do better, you and I. We can change America!"—and he exudes life. Message and messenger fit. By a gift of grace, Edwards's capacity for hope survived the death of his sixteen-year-old son. John Edwards's suffering, like his rearing as the son of a Carolina mill-worker, connects him to the trials of most Americans. He gets it. Kerry has read about it. Bush hasn't a clue. "You give me a shot at George W. Bush," Edwards declared at the end of his Dartmouth speech, "and I'll give you the presidency." I believe him. He's the real deal.