John Edwards’ Common Touch

Room at the top

I thought I might have the trails to myself today, but just as I was lacing up my boots, who should burst into the lodge after finishing his morning ski but a fellow member of the political press. He asked me not to mention his name because he didn’t want his editors to know he’d been skiing instead of reporting.

Editors, take note: Skiing in New Hampshire is reporting! Why, just this morning, I interviewed Sara Cox of the Windblown Ski and Snowshoeing Center in New Ipswich, which is in the Monadnock region, close to the Massachusetts border (and thanks to Slate reader Jonathan Eunice for suggesting I go there). Sara is supporting Howard Dean and feeling quite concerned about how his Iowa loss will affect his prospects in New Hampshire and beyond. Of course, it’s a virtual certainty that cross-country skiers will turn out to be Dean supporters. To find Kerry’s demographic, one might try the downhill slopes. I imagine Edwards appealing to snowmobilers and Clark taking the ice-skating vote.

But I digress. It hasn’t snowed here for a week, and the trails are getting pretty ratty. The downhill runs at Windblown, which I remember as a lot of fun when I skied there four years ago, were icy-slick with occasional rocks projecting through the snow. At one point, I had to take off my skis and walk down a steep and winding hill to avoid wiping out. But the weather was sunny and beautiful, and it was still great to be out.

Elizabeth Edwards stumps for her husband

After skiing, I raced back to Concord to catch John Edwards at a retirement community. But when I arrived, the speaker turned out to be Elizabeth Edwards, substituting for her husband at the last minute. Despite the awkwardness of introducing most of her comments with “John thinks” or “John always says,” she was quite good. Elizabeth Edwards is more like Hillary Clinton than Laura Bush. She has a mind of her own, and she isn’t reluctant to use it. She began by saying she wanted to take on the “dumb blonde syndrome” that was affecting her husband.

Hearing her speak gave me a stronger sense of how John Edwards’ late-blooming political career represents a redemptive mission for his family. After their teenage son Wade was killed in a car accident, the Edwardses emerged from what sounds like a severe depression, had two more children (the first, now 5, when Elizabeth was 48, the other when she was 50), and decided to try to change the world. They put all their energy and a considerable amount of the money John had made as a lawyer into his 1996 run for the Senate. “We wouldn’t be making this sacrifice for our family if this wasn’t so important to us,” she said.

The best moment came when two senior citizens—one who identified himself as a gay veteran, the other a white-haired woman—asked separately why John Edwards wasn’t in favor of gay marriage. The candidate’s wife tried to defend the official line that “civil unions” were good enough for states that wanted them, but there was something backward about a relatively young woman arguing the conservative position to a bunch of open-minded codgers. It was a lovely audience in all respects. At the end, a silver-haired man in a gray cardigan sweater stood up to thank the guest. “You made a marvelous alternative to your husband!” he said.

The Edwards-mobile comes to Portsmouth

I caught up with the husband that evening at the VFW Hall in Portsmouth. Billed as Edwards’$2 100th“town hall” meeting, the room was packed to the rafters with people who wanted a gander at Iowa’s sweetheart. Beginning with his “two Americas” riff, Edwards evinced a genuine sense of outrage about poverty and the lack of health care, lobbyists, predatory lenders, and greedy pharmaceutical companies. But at the same time he slams these villains and President Bush, Edwards manages to give his presentation an optimistic cast by drawing on his own rags-to-riches story. For instance, he described his proposal for expanding access to higher education by talking about how he worked his way through college unloading tractor-trailers at night. “You spend a night unloading tractor-trailers in North Carolina and you’ll get up and study the next day,” he noted, to laughter.

John Edwards in Portsmouth

Simply put, Edwards is one of the most talented political speakers I’ve ever seen—on nights like last night, Clinton-level. He has a way of turning a hall into a courtroom, completely engaging with the audience as if they were members of a jury. He uses his hands to express himself so vividly that it looks like he’s doing his own simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. Edwards may not have the foreign policy background of a Kerry or a Clark (and his speech was notably thin on that subject), but he has something that may be much more valuable: a genuine affinity for ordinary people.

The most important aspect of this may be the way he still identifies with the working class, much as Clinton did. Edwards may be rich now, but he seems to think of himself as a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who made good. When John Kerry listens to the stories of poor people, he reacts in a seemingly sincere way: My God, people shouldn’t have to live like this, and I’m going to do something about it. John Edwards reacts in a very different way: I’ve been through it too, and by God, we’re going to do something about it.