The first time I meet John Edwards I’m struck dumb. He’s glowing. He reminds you of whoever that was that you once knew, the most charismatic guy you ever met. Wow! What a smile. And those teeth. And what fun he’s having. He launches into a talk about his father, a mill worker. And how his father believed in American Values. He talks about a country where the son of a mill worker can run against the son of a president. His shoulders soft and at ease, in the hot room he’s dripping with relaxation. I want to kiss him, or perhaps just run a comb through his golden hair while he says over and over again in that easy Carolina drawl, “People like my father.”
He talks about people needing medicine. CEOs making too much money. “Wealth disparity is wrong,” he says. Talks about a free first year of public college for kids willing to work 10 hours a week. “The work won’t hurt ’em,” he says, smiling. “I worked myself in college, loading trucks for UPS.”
The room must be 100 degrees, but nobody seems to notice. Under questioning, Edwards responds with things like, “I’ve heard you, now hear me.” Asked about the Patriot Act, which he voted for, he says the problem is not with the act itself, though it could be improved. “[But] we cannot allow people like John Ashcroft. . . . ” He takes on the easy targets and I wonder, if I had a slice of bread, if I wouldn’t butter it with his sweat. It takes me two hours to realize he hasn’t really said anything, except “tax cuts for the middle class . . . Helping farmers. . . . The kind of people that I grew up with don’t have lobbyists.” I’ve never seen so much sincerity; it emanates every time he squints and places a foot on a chair and looks into the questioner’s eyes.
Edwards’s press secretary is Jennifer Palmieri, who was deputy press secretary under Clinton. “He’s better than Clinton,” she tells me. “He connects with people.”
“He’s incredibly smooth,” I say.
Palmieri wrinkles her brow at this. I see a string of adjectives run across her forehead like a ticker tape. “No, not smooth. Confident. Empathetic. Clinton dazzled. Edwards isn’t interested in dazzling. Amazing powers of empathy . . . [spin spin spin] . . . It comes across . . . [spin spin spin] . . . He has an understanding of what their lives are like . . . [spin spin spin] . . . He’s the only one that can beat Bush.”
It might be when John Kerry says, “I love John Edwards,” that I lose faith completely. It’s the most amazing confession of the debate and I have to turn to Shir Haberman from the Portsmouth Herald to make sure I heard it right. “Did John Kerry just say he loves John Edwards?”
“Yes, he did that.”
After that, every time John Edwards says he’s an outsider I hear John Kerry saying I love you.
John Edwards: “I am very much an outsider.”
John Kerry: “I love you.”
John Edwards: “I’m an outsider. I have not spent my whole life in politics, like most of these folks.”
John Kerry: “I love you, man.”
John Edwards: “The question is, Who is in the best position to change what’s going on in Washington? People who’ve spent a lot of time there, people who’ve spent most of their life in politics? Or somebody who comes from a different place, who’s been fighting these people all his life?”
John Kerry: “I soooo love you. I’m just completely into you. I don’t know what to do about it.”
They don’t want to let me in at the Edwards rally in Nashua because I don’t have ID. “Anybody could walk in with a notepad in his hand,” the door guy says.
“That’s true,” I say. My face is dry. Several hundred people are being escorted into an extra room. I don’t want to go with them. I want to go inside the main hall, where the bleachers have been stacked and a flag hung across the gymnasium. I don’t want to go to whatever horrible place those other people are going. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry goes a long way in this world. And I am sorry. Sorry for leaving my credentials three freezing blocks away. Press passes are easy to get—they give them to anybody. I’ve got enough press passes to play pinochle.
“Ladies and gentleman, the senator is in the building!”
Chanting, thumping, clapping. This is the middle school and there’ll be three times this many people when Kerry shows up at the high school down the road two hours from now. This is not Edwards’s state, but it looks like he’s going to make a respectable showing.
He comes to the platform amid cheers: EDWARDS, EDWARDS, EDWARDS!
“Together you and I are going to change this country. We have so much work to do. . . . There are 35 million Americans living in poverty and it is wrong. You and I are going to do something about it.” Edwards gets better and better. You would never know that he’s said the same speech five times a day for months.
Toward the middle, Edwards hits my favorite line, where he mentions civil rights and the pundits who told him not to talk about civil rights in the South, and he says, “I’ll tell you where we need to talk about it. We need to talk about it everywhere.”
“Oh yeah,” I say, hanging out behind a bank of TV cameras. “You got that right.”
I was supposed to watch the Super Bowl with John Edwards in South Carolina but I missed my nonstop flight. The lady at the counter didn’t know what I was talking about.
“I’m supposed to be in Myrtle Beach,” I told her, sliding my reservation across the counter. “John Kerry just won by 12 points and John Edwards fought Wesley Clark to a statistical tie. There’s a blizzard in Boston and South Carolina is Edwards’s last shot. It’s a must-win state for him.”
“We don’t have you listed,” she told me. “And we don’t fly nonstop to Myrtle Beach.”
I looked behind me at a frozen field speckled with tollbooths like fishing shacks and then the Marriott in the distance. Past the Marriott there was nothing. I was in Newark. I couldn’t decide if I was running out of time or if time had already run out.
“Maybe you mean Hooters Airline,” the lady at the Delta desk told me. I was wearing my white down jacket that’s so dirty at this point that it could more accurately be described as ash. I look like a snowman at a gas station.
“I’d know if I was on Hooters,” I told her. Then I realized I was at the wrong airport. I was supposed to be at LaGuardia. And why was I flying to Myrtle Beach when the Super Bowl party was in Charleston? And if the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers, wouldn’t that be the absolute worst election-year metaphor of all time?
In Louisiana, Edwards essentially repeats his speech from the primaries, replacing his name with Kerry’s. All the local operators are here, the governor, both senators, the head of the state party. There are about 50 tables, but some are empty. Three local reporters and one from the AP ask the senator if he is going to be the vice president.
“Would you like to be the vice president?”
“I’m going to leave those deliberations to John Kerry.”
“Has John Kerry talked to you about being vice president.”
“As I said, I’m going to let John Kerry answer those questions.”
“But if you weren’t letting John Kerry answer those questions, how would you answer them?”
“As I said . . . “
None of it matters and no one cares. The reporters are uninterested in their own stories. I ask about Dick Cheney’s recent statements linking Al Qaeda and Saddam.
“I’m a member of the intelligence committee,” Edwards tells me. “And I can tell you he’s wrong.”
“Why don’t you just call him a liar?” I ask.
“Why don’t you do that?” Edwards says, with that boyish smile and good skin he has. He seems to think that as a journalist, I wouldn’t want word to get out that I held a personal grudge against a member of the current administration, which would play right into Republican conspiracy theories about the left-wing media.
“OK,” I say. “Dick Cheney’s a liar.”
On Edwards’s way to the ballroom, I ask him whatever happened to Jennifer Palmieri, his former spokeswoman, who had assured me John Edwards was the only candidate who could beat Bush.
“She’s working for John Kerry in Ohio now,” he tells me.
“I liked her,” I say.
“I liked her too,” he replies, pausing for just a second, something that might be a memory moving across his constant smile.
Stephen Elliott’s most recent novel is Happy Baby. Looking Forward to It, a book about the 2004 Democratic primaries, will be released by Picador in October.