MONTHS ago, I observed on my blog that I think John Edwards is a phony — a make-believe Man of The People.
It’s not so much that he’s lying when he says he wants to help One America — the Deserving Poor, whom he wants to vote for him — get what it has coming to it from the Other America (that of the Really Rich, to which he disarmingly admits he belongs). I think he believes it. But I don’t, and here’s why:
Strike One: Sept. 16, 2003. The candidate was supposed to appear on a makeshift stage on Greene Street in front of the Russell House.
He was supposed to arrive at 4 p.m., but it was past 5 before he showed. When his appearance was imminent, his wife appeared on the stage and built expectation in a manner I found appealing and sincere. Then I saw Mr. Edwards step to an offstage position just behind the bleachers to my left. None of the folks in the “good” seats could see him.
His face was impassive, slack, bored: Another crowd, another show. Nothing wrong with that — just a professional at work.
But then, I saw the thing that stuck with me: As his introduction reached its climax, he straightened, and turned on a thousand-watt smile as easily and artificially as flipping a switch. He assumed the look of a man who had just, quite unexpectedly, run into a long-lost best friend. He stepped into view of the crowd at large, and worked his way, Bill Clinton-like, from the back of the crowd toward the stage — a man of the people, coming out from among the people — shaking hands with the humble, grateful enthusiasm of a poor soul who had just won the Irish Sweepstakes.
It was so well done, but so obviously a thing of art, that I was taken aback despite three decades of seeing politicians at work.
Not enough for you? OK.
Strike Two: Jan. 23, 2004. Seeking our support in the primary he would win 11 days later, he came to an interview with The State’s editorial board.
He was all ersatz-cracker bonhomie, beginning by swinging his salt-encrusted left snowboot onto the polished boardroom table, booming, “How do y’all like my boots?” He had not, it seemed, had time to change footwear since leaving New Hampshire.
The interview proceeded according to script, a lot of aw-shucking, smiling, showing of genuine concern, and warm expressions of determination to close the gap between the Two Americas. Then he left, and I didn’t think much more about it, until a week later.
On the 30th, Howard Dean came in to see us for the second time. Again, I was struck by how personable he was, so unlike his screamer image. I rode down on the elevator with him afterward, along with my administrative assistant and another staffer who was a real Dean fan (but, worse luck for Gov. Dean, not a member of our board). I paused to watch him take his time to greet everyone in our foyer — treating each person who wanted to shake his hand as every bit as important as any editorial board member, if not more so. I remarked upon it.
“Isn’t he a nice man?” said our copy editor (the fan). I agreed. Then came the revelation: “Unlike John Edwards,” observed the administrative assistant. What’s that? It seems that when she alone had met then-Sen. Edwards at the reception desk, she had been struck by the way he utterly ignored the folks in our customer service department and others who had hoped for a handshake or a word from the Great Man. He had saved all his amiability, all his professionally entertaining energy and talent, for the folks upstairs who would have a say in the paper’s endorsement.
At that moment, my impression acquired stony bulwarks of Gothic dimensions.
Strike Three: Sept. 22, 2004. I dropped by a reception held for then-vice-presidential nominee Edwards at the Capital City Club that afternoon. I had stuffed my press credentials into my pocket after arrival so as to mix freely with the high-rollers and hear what they had to say. (They knew who I was, but the stuffy types who want writers to stand like cattle behind barriers did not.) Good thing, too, because there was plenty of time to kill, and there’s no more informative way to slaughter it than with the sort of folks whom candidates want to meet at such receptions.
It was well past the candidate’s alleged time of arrival, but no one seemed to mind. Then a prominent Democrat who lives in a fashionable downtown neighborhood confided we’d be waiting even longer. We all knew the candidate had a more public appearance at Martin Luther King Park before this one, and no one begrudged him such face time with real voters. But this particular insider knew something else: He had bided his own time because he had seen Sen. Edwards go jogging in front of his house, along with his security detail, after the time that the MLK event was to have started.
As reported in The State the next day: “Edwards was running late, and the throng waiting to rally with him at Martin Luther King Jr. Park took notice. They sat for two hours in the sweltering heat inside the community center, a block off Five Points.”
We were cool at the club, drinking, schmoozing, snacking. So he’s late? What are these folks going to do — write checks for the Republicans?
But my impression had been reinforced with steel girders: John Edwards, Man of The People, is a phony. And until I see an awful lot of stunning evidence to the contrary, that impression is not likely to change.