Edwards’ Emotionalism

The candidate and his family in New Hampshire.

John Edwards

CONCORD, N.H.—John Edwards is the anti-Obama. The Illinois senator’s stump speeches are studded with anecdotes and set-piece jokes and have a changing rhythm he has compared to a jazz performance. When he offers policy specifics, they feel secondary. Edwards finished speaking Monday in the Concord High gymnasium without offering anecdotes or jokes—the rhetoric didn’t soar much above the fiberglass backboards. He punctuated his stream of policy talk on global warming, Iraq, education, poverty, and health care with the Edwards C: the shape he makes with his thumb and first finger when citing a fact or policy detail.

Later, at a tour of Stonyfield farms, Edwards made the distinction with Obama clearer. He called on Congress to stand up to the president even if Bush vetoes a date for withdrawal of American troops—a conscious effort to distinguish himself as more anti-war than Obama, who said Sunday that Congress should pass the war-funding money without a timeline for withdrawal if Bush vetoed the spending bill. He then made a broader swipe. “I hope you will put a really rigorous test to [the presidential candidates]. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the rhetoric. It’s not enough to talk about ‘hope’ and ‘we’re all going to feel good.’ We’re past that. This is a very serious time in American history. It’s time for anybody running for president to treat this seriously. I have talked about hope and inspiration in the past, and they’re wonderful things, but you have to translate them into action.” The only way it could have been clearer that he was talking about Obama would have been for him to hold up the Illinois senator’s book jacket and point to it.

Edwards is not just trying to be the policy candidate, but the macho policy candidate, boasting and taunting his opponents to match his level of specificity. His wife reinforced the message. “I’m confident about his ideas, so grill the business out of him,” she said, introducing him.

Candidates recount dramatic anecdotes or tell jokes to draw audiences in to specific policies or convey personal, appealing qualities. Emotion leads to persuasion which leads to commitment. Edwards’ pitch Monday—a mix of economic populism and international idealism—had feeling: He called on the audience to pitch in to restore America’s position as a force for good in the world. But he left aside the normal stagecraft and swelling language politicians usually employ to connect with their audiences.

At the moment, Edwards doesn’t need emotional rhetoric. It is swirling around him in Concord, as it will continue to now that his wife had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Monday was the first time that the whole Edwards family campaigned together. The Edwards’ young son and daughter were off for spring break, and their older daughter was up from Harvard, where she is studying law.

Elizabeth Edwards’ illness was not mentioned in the half-day I spent with her husband, but the family tableau kept forcing me to account for it. Edwards has asked us to look at him in the center of an emotional swarm and judge how he handles himself as a way of testing how he would handle the pressure of the presidency. He is asking us to imagine what he’s going through and admire his commitment in the face of it. The presence of his children brings this into high relief. During the address at Stonyfield, the young Edwards boy draped over his mother like a shawl and kissed her before his minders whisked him away. It seemed normal. It also seemed maudlin.

No one in the Edwards campaign looks morose or somber, especially Elizabeth. She showed perfect pitch introducing her husband, standing to expand on an answer to a voter’s question about veteran’s health benefits, and reminding her husband about a policy fact. She even collected a little cash on a day that the Edwards campaign celebrated raising $14 million in the first quarter. During a plant tour to see how Stonyfield yogurt is made, a 25-year-old quality-control worker named Marin Lacoste stopped the candidate and his wife. Standing in her white lab coat, safety goggles, and hard hat, she handed over a $100 check with slightly shaky hands to Elizabeth Edwards.