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The Gaffes of John Edwards

His most embarrassing quotes, in context.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, worst moments, and flip-flops. This series assesses each candidate’s most embarrassing quotes, puts them in context, and explains how the candidate or his supporters defend the comments. Today’s subject is John Edwards.

Quote: “One evening while he was campaigning for the Senate in North Carolina, Edwards was faced with a choice of several events he might attend. An advance man suggested, ‘Maybe we ought to go to the reception for Leah Rabin.’ Edwards responded, ‘Who’s she?’ ‘Yitzhak Rabin’s widow,’ replied the aide. ‘Who was he?’ asked Edwards” (Charles Peters, Washington Monthly, June 2003).

Charge: Many critics regard Edwards as a lightweight. During an appearance on Meet the Press, he “did not display a command of the information a president should know,” Peters wrote. Peters cited the Rabin anecdote—”a story recently told to me by a reliable source”—as “less than reassuring” about Edwards’ readiness to be president.

Context: Edwards has less experience in office than any 2004 presidential candidate except Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton. According to the Charlotte Observer, Edwards “bought subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist and the New Republic” when he was preparing to run for the Senate in 1998. After Edwards’ Meet the Press appearance, President Clinton reportedly advised him to bone up on policy.

Defense: The Edwards campaign says that Peters’ anonymously sourced story “has no bearing in fact” and that Edwards has never been to an event that included Leah Rabin.

Quote: “Like many of you, I grew up in a small town in North Carolina” (California Democratic convention, Feb. 17, 2002).

Charge: At a convention filled with Californians, it was a “small-bore slip—but one that prompted snickers,” the New York Times reported. In Edwards’ home state, the Raleigh News & Observer headlined its story, “Edwards Forgets His Place.” The CharlotteObserver declared, “Uh, somebody tell Sen. John Edwards they only filmed Andy Griffith in Hollywood.”

Context: Edwards was accustomed to speaking in North Carolina, where the line made more sense.

Defense: He was on autopilot, and the slip had nothing to do with issues or policies.