BOSTON—I admit it. I don’t get it. John Edwards is a perfectly fine public speaker, and compared to the likes of Bob Graham, he’s Cicero, but I’ve never understood the press corps’ crush on him. Of all the Democratic presidential candidates with whom I shared a small one-on-one encounter—even a handshake and a quick question—I found Edwards the least personally charming. Wesley Clark was a stiff shouter in speeches, but he had a likable way of engaging in locker-room razzing with the media. Howard Dean, the candidate whose stump persona (at least until he began messianic chanting) most closely resembled the one he put forth to the press, had a regular-guy air. Even John Kerry was hands-on, a guy who would put his arm around you to bring you into his circle. The awkward forcedness of the moment was part of its A-for-effort appeal.
Edwards, on the other hand, was guarded, bland, and impenetrable when I sat down for a 30-minute interview with him last September in a supporter’s home in Sioux City, Iowa. He had nothing to say beyond the confines of his scripted talking points, even on the subject of his home state of North Carolina’s recent pilfering of Roy Williams from my beloved Kansas Jayhawks (beyond conceding, “I wanted Roy baaaaad“). He showed no interest in small talk or idle conversation, just question, response, stop. Question, response, stop. The candidate Edwards most resembled was Dick Gephardt, who was similarly suspicious during my 10-minute encounter with him, but at least Gephardt displayed a deep knowledge of policy. And I didn’t mind because, hey, you don’t expect to be charmed by Dick Gephardt.
But Edwards’ great strength as a candidate is supposed to be his ability to melt people with his winning smile. I was initially impressed by his public charm, particularly the first time I saw him deliver his revamped “Two Americas” stump speech in January. But that quickly wore thin, too. His delivery appears artful at first, but with repetition I saw it as rote and mechanical, so practiced that it’s a little bit creepy. I find him as inscrutable as I did in that Iowa living room 10 months ago. As the campaign continued and Edwards kept drawing rave reviews, even from Republicans, I started asking myself: What’s wrong with me?
With those doubts in mind, like everyone else I waited for Edwards’ moment to arrive Wednesday night with anticipation. I wanted to see him deliver a new speech, a piece of oratory worthy of a presidential nominating convention. Edwards delivered that speech, a captivating declaration of the ways a Kerry-Edwards administration would wage the war on terror. Edwards was sure and forceful, and he outlined a powerful alternative to the Bush administration’s war. Unfortunately, he took until the fifth page of the transcript of his seven-page speech to get to that play-within-the-play, and the minispeech was finished by the middle of the sixth page. The speech I wanted to see was bookended by disappointment.
The opening wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t particularly good, either. I was touched to hear Edwards mention his son Wade, who died in a car accident eight years ago and whom he writes about with grace in his book Four Trials. I don’t recall hearing Edwards ever say the word “Wade” in public before. I once saw him tell a voter that he had four children, and then he named only three: Cate, Emma Claire, and Jack.
After that moving—perhaps only to me—moment, Edwards transitioned into the John-Kerry-served-in-Vietnam portion of his address. Maybe it’s nitpicky, but some of the assertions he made, and has made before, aren’t exactly accurate. He said that Kerry’s decision to beach his Swift boat while under fire was made “in a split-second,” which isn’t right. It was a decision Kerry had talked about and hashed out with his crew in advance. That doesn’t make it less brave or less brilliant, but the story ought to be told the right way.
Likewise, Edwards implied that Kerry knew that captaining a Swift boat was a dangerous duty when he volunteered for it, which isn’t true. When Kerry asked for Swift duty, he wasn’t asking for a combat job. It was only later that the Swifts’ role in the war changed. Again, that fact doesn’t detract from John Kerry’s valor. In fact, it makes Kerry more understandable, more human. It shows how Kerry, an opponent of the Vietnam War before he enlisted, ended up unhappily—but with distinction—participating in it. Without that element of his story, Kerry becomes a thoughtful and serious young man, skeptical about Vietnam, who enthusiastically asks to be allowed to ship out and kill people he thinks of as innocents. I prefer the story of a man who got put in a situation he didn’t ask for but did his duty anyway.
After Kerry-in-Vietnam, Edwards shifted into son-of-a-mill-worker mode, followed by Two Americas. He was, however, more substantive than usual, listing off specific policies a Kerry administration would seek to enact: tax credits for health care, child care, and college tuition, paid for by an increase in taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. I think rolling back the high end of the tax cuts is a good idea, but if a lot of Americans thought they were in the top 1 percent four years ago, how many think they are in the top 2 percent? He should have given us a salary figure.
But whatever flaws marred the portions of the speech about domestic policy, they were erased by the masterful section on foreign policy and the war on terrorism. About 20 minutes into his speech, Edwards painted the images of Sept. 11—”the towers falling, the Pentagon in flames, and the smoldering field in Pennsylvania”—and he mourned the nearly 3,000 who died. Unlike many of the speakers during the convention’s first three days, Edwards didn’t refer to 9/11 as a lost opportunity or a nostalgic period of national unity. He noted it as a tragedy that plunged the nation into war.
Edwards criticized the Bush administration for dragging its feet on intelligence reform, and he promised better homeland security, safer ports, and more money for first responders—firefighters, cops, and emergency medical technicians. He also promised more dead terrorists. “And we will have one clear unmistakable message for al-Qaida and the rest of these terrorists,” he said. “You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you.” And on the subject of Iraq, Edwards declared that America would win. He promised more special forces, a modernized military, stronger alliances, and he even said the magic words I didn’t expect to hear: “a democratic Iraq.”
Not long after that, he went back to heart-tugging and platitudes, and I was again wondering why I don’t get it. But one moment moved me, though you had to have watched Edwards closely for the last year to catch it: He adapted the conclusion of Four Trials, the book in which he talks most freely about Wade, for the speech. The last lines of the book are nearly the same as the ones Edwards said, near the very end of the speech, when he talked about the lessons he has learned during his sometimes tragic life. One lesson, Edwards said, is that “there will always be heartache and struggle—you can’t make it go away. But the other is that people of good and strong will can make a difference. One is a sad lesson and the other’s inspiring. We are Americans and we choose to be inspired.”
I saw it as a second mention of his son, this one a more private one, to pay tribute to the one member of the family who couldn’t share this night with his dad.