Friday, February 23, 2007

But if you’re strong and good

Presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards appeared alongside Rep. Heath Shuler at an event in an Asheville, NC home this afternoon. Maybe fifty people. Informal, though nearly all the men wore ties. Edwards did not. And I did not remember to take notes.

This was the third time I’ve met him. Edwards just keeps getting better. A mutual friend who has known him “longer than Elizabeth” said he’s obviously more comfortable these days. We’re seeing more of what he’s really like, she thinks.

One national campaign under his belt already, John Edwards in 2007 is not as flavor of the week as Barack Obama is (or as Edwards -- another one-term senator -- once was himself), but seems more grounded in what he believes and more certain of what he wants to do if given the chance to be president.

Edwards has been doing his presidential homework these last couple of years. He was relaxed. He spoke about the underlying political divisions behind the Sunni/Shiite strife in Iraq. The Maliki government must make the tough political decision to work towards reconciliation or there will be no stability in Iraq. No matter how many troops we put at risk on the streets of Baghdad propping him up and paying for Iraqi discord with American blood. The Iranians and the Syrians have an interest in a stable Iraq, and we should engage them in the process.

As the sole superpower, Edwards explained, people look to us to ensure stability in a violent world. The U.S. must reclaim its leadership role. What we’ve seen in the last six years is that power alone doesn’t make a country a leader. If anything, power alone breeds distrust. But if you’re strong and good, people will respect you, listen to you, and follow you. That’s leadership.

He was on his message, of course, and there was nothing new: universal health care coverage, energy transformation, conservation, and leading the world in addressing global warming. Edwards said calmly that it’s time for Americans to be patriotic about something other than war.

Maybe it was just the living room setting, but it didn’t feel like a speech. It felt like something he believes. And it was refreshing to hear a politician speak who doesn’t sound as if he’s trying to sell you something.

Afterwards, I mentioned to my friend the “slick lawyer” image Edwards will have to overcome to persuade many voters. I’ve met more than a few with a visceral distrust for him: a doctor who hates him for litigating malpractice cases, and blames him for her malpractice insurance rates; a mother who believes (has been told) that his rags-to-riches personal history is a sham. Neither has met him, or wants to. He’s a lawyer. Always a lawyer when seen at a distance.

A friend once said about Bruce Springsteen, “Don’t buy his records. You have to see him in concert. If you see him live you’ll get it.” He was right.

And that is John Edwards’ challenge, getting those who don’t buy his record to come to see him live or watch him on TV. Activists and policy wonks look at a candidate’s positions. Normal Americans want to know about the man. Communicating the man, convincing a national jury, a national audience, that’s the trick.

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