Cornbread and Roses

On a soft gray Monday in mid-October, the Interfaith Council shelter in downtown Chapel Hill has a brand-new volunteer, brimming with enthusiasm that's almost annoying at 10:15 in the morning. "How're you all doing back there?" John Edwards calls out to the kitchen crew as he beams into the dining room, trailed by a clutch of staffers, University of North Carolina antipoverty activists and TV cameras. While he chats up the shelter volunteers and residents, alternately squinting his perma-tanned face with concern and flashing the yard-wide smile that almost won Iowa, two white-haired women on the kitchen crew, both named Jane, are nudged toward him for a souvenir shot.

"I want this picture for me," Edwards says with his best Sunday school charm, hugging the women under his arms. After a bit more chatting and hugging, there's a momentary lull. Hands on hips, with mock impatience, Edwards tilts toward the kitchen and hollers out, "So am I supposed to do something or what?"

"Well, we've got some unloading," offers Paul Eberhardt, the day shelter coordinator. Quick as a flash, last year's Democratic nominee for Vice President is back in the pantry, tearing cans of generic lima beans and tomatoes out of their plastic-wrapped cardboard while Eberhardt feeds him an earful of insights from the front lines of poverty-fighting. "Lately we're getting hospital workers, construction workers, here at lunchtime," Eberhardt says, talking fast. "It's low employment now, not just unemployment." Edwards purses his lips, furrows his brow, gives every sign of listening, even as he briskly moves on to filling up water pitchers, smiling on cue for the local affiliates until it's time to clap his hands and cry out to his staff, "What's next?"

Around this time last year, a lot of people were asking that very same question about Edwards. After his cometlike ascent from first-term senator to the national Democratic ticket, Edwards crashed to earth when he failed to persuade running mate John Kerry to contest George W. Bush's questionable victory in Ohio. Suddenly, Edwards's giddy three-year campaign to lift himself into the political stratosphere -- and knit together the "two Americas" he dearly loved to preach about -- was over. His wife, Elizabeth, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. His Senate seat, which Edwards had abandoned to focus on the national race, would return to Republican hands in January, leaving him without a built-in mechanism for staying in the national spotlight. For the first time in his adult life, this blue-skies optimist was staring straight into a blank horizon. Friends and admirers offered advice and speculated: Would he return to his law practice? Start a foreign-policy think tank to shore up his presidential résumé? Run for governor? Cash in on his connections with some Dan Quayle-style consultancies?

In February Edwards surprised them all, announcing a campaign to "eradicate poverty in America." With a $40,000 annual salary paid by private funds, Edwards became the first director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC, Chapel Hill's law school, largely a think tank designed to bring antipoverty scholars, activists, journalists and politicians together to cook up innovative ways to tackle economic and racial inequities.Edwards is also putting some of his ideas into action, including the College for Everyone program he promised in 2004. In low-income Greene County Edwards this summer announced a pilot program to pay for the first year of college for local high school graduates willing to work at least ten hours a week.

Since launching the center, Edwards has returned to perpetual motion, taking his antipoverty crusade to more than thirty states. Between visits to shelters and job-training centers and delivering his new stump speech, full of ringing challenges to view poverty as "the great moral cause of our time," Edwards has raised more than $4 million for Democratic legislative candidates in mostly red states, trying, as he says, "to build the party back from the ground up." He's teaming with unlikely partners on the left -- including local AFL-CIO, ACORN and NAACP chapters -- in campaigns to raise the minimum wage in Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. He's praising Big Labor's historic role in "lifting millions of Americans out of poverty." And he's floating serious -- and surprisingly liberal -- proposals to put his high-flown rhetoric into action.

He's touting a controversial "cultural integration" plan to give low-income families housing vouchers to move into better neighborhoods. He's calling for expansions to Bill Clinton's earned-income tax credits, for concerted crackdowns on predatory lenders, and for "work bonds" to help low-income workers build savings and assets. He wants not only to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent but also to raise capital-gains taxes for those on the top rungs. After Hurricane Katrina he spoke pointedly about how "the face of poverty in America is the face of color" and promoted an ambitious Gulf Coast recovery program modeled on FDR's Works Progress Administration -- a touchstone for the kind of big-government liberalism that the old Edwards (like most Democratic leaders today) wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.

All of which raises a question: Who is this guy -- and what has he done with the centrist New Democrat who once had Karl Rove quaking in his boots? While he clearly hasn't lost his all-too-palpable lust for the White House, Edwards has largely left behind the Clintonian emphasis on "personal responsibility" and "fiscal restraint" that often struck a hollow note in his campaign speeches -- particularly in contrast to his heartfelt cry of "two Americas." The metamorphosis began during the last campaign, when Edwards gradually found his voice as an economic populist. Less than a decade into his political career, he remains a work in progress.

"We might be seeing the kind of transformation Bobby Kennedy underwent," says Pete MacDowell, a veteran grassroots organizer and staunch Edwards critic ("a political Ken doll with a populist streak" is how MacDowell describes him) who runs the NC Progressive Democrats PAC. "After he initially supported Vietnam and went slow on civil rights, Kennedy developed a moral core and turned into the kind of Democrat we haven't seen since. I never thought I'd say this, but maybe that's what we're now seeing with Edwards. Maybe this is his core."

Selling Kids on Fighting Poverty

However implausible the RFK comparison might sound, it's hard to deny it on this mid-October Monday in Chapel Hill, when Edwards -- fresh from the shelter -- shimmers onto the stage of UNC's Great Hall at lunchtime, soaking up Beatles-esque roars of adulation from an overflow crowd of students. It's the first stop on a ten-campus national tour, Opportunity Rocks, where Edwards will urge thousands of students to fight poverty. Even with an unsexy message, the messenger will draw crowds that surprise even his organizers -- 1,500 at the University of California, Berkeley, more than 2,000 at the University of Michigan.

Edwards doesn't disappoint his young fans. Like his hero, Kennedy, he has a knack for talking about life-and-death struggles, laying bare the challenges of blue-collar folks struggling to make ends meet but leaving his audience more challenged and inspired than depressed. Reminding students of their forebears' campaigns against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, Edwards throws down the gauntlet: "These folks need a champion -- and not just me. They need you. You can make ending poverty in America the cause of your generation. It's the right thing to do. This is not about charity -- it's about justice!"

"I never thought I'd see this many kids coming to listen to a speech about poverty," UNC senior Josh Glasser gushed in the glowing wake left by Edwards as he jetted off to his next gig. Last year Glasser co-founded SPROUT, a campus group helping low-income locals apply for earned-income tax credits. Edwards's speech at UNC, where Glasser and co-founder James Jolley handed out SPROUT fliers, brought sixty-five new students to the group's listserv in just the first day. "We met with the senator and his staff and they really listened, really wanted to help," Glasser says. "It wasn't some top-down thing -- they wanted to hear our ideas. I know some people are cynical about him using this to position himself for President. But come on: We all know poverty's not exactly a get-'em-to-the-polls kind of issue. He's convinced me, at least, that he means it." For Edwards, that's one down -- and just a few dozen million more skeptics to go.

A Rising Star, Moving Left

Johnny Reid Edwards shot onto the national political stage in 2001, at a moment when Democrats were still gagging on the bitter dregs of Al Gore's defeat -- and dreaming fond dreams of the next Bill Clinton. And here, by God, he seemed to be: a jovial moderate, even handsomer than Clinton, saying smart, empathetic things about "regular people" in a soft Dixie drawl. Like Clinton, Edwards had risen to glory from practically nothing, the kind of rags-to-riches legend that has made voters swoon since the days of Andy Jackson. Best of all, he came without Clinton's personal baggage. Even the notorious smear campaigners at the North Carolina Republican Party could dredge up nothing damning on Edwards during his upset of Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998 -- nothing beyond the indisputable fact that he had, for twenty years, been successfully suing big corporations on behalf of those "regular people," piling up millions in the process as one of America's top trial attorneys.

In his three years as a senator, Edwards had hardly had time to knock anybody's socks off. He'd impressed hard-bitten Washingtonians when he deposed key witnesses in Clinton's impeachment trial and delivered a closing defense argument -- and again when he led a winning fight, joining Senators McCain and Kennedy, for the Patients' Bill of Rights. But there were whispers of shallowness, callowness, naked opportunism. And almost as soon as he'd kindled the hopes of forlorn Democrats, more serious doubts began to surface.

Democrats had seen both Clinton and Jimmy Carter campaign as power-to-the-people populists and then govern more like Nixon than Roosevelt. Edwards's affiliation with the Democratic Leadership Council, founded in the mid-1980s to demolish the party's old "liberal fundamentalism," reinforced the suspicion that he was just another big talker from Dixie with a conservative core. It didn't help when Clinton, the old snake-oil master himself, admiringly commented that Edwards could "charm an owl out of a tree." Worse, throughout 2002 and 2003 Edwards gave policy speeches -- crafted in part by DLC policy guru Bruce Reed -- that made him sound exactly like what cynics had taken to calling him: Clinton Lite. "The American people don't want us to tear down America's corporations," he declared in a talk called "Putting Responsibility First." In one healthcare speech Edwards repeated the word "responsibility" twenty-eight times. Outlining his tax-policy proposals Edwards came off like a Clinton puppet, mouthing the mantra "opportunity, responsibility, hard work."

Out of the other side of his mouth, however, Edwards talked with candor and gut-level understanding about economic, racial and class inequities. "How long had it been since you heard a Democrat utter the word poverty?'' says Chris Kromm, executive director of the progressive Institute for Southern Studies. "And who would have thought they'd hear a Democrat from the South making workers' rights a central campaign theme?" Edwards's refusal to speak ill of his Democratic opponents also struck a fresh tone. Progressives remained skeptical, but they couldn't completely tune Edwards out -- except for one not-so-little thing.

"I can give you the exact date," says Kromm. "September 19, 2002." In that day's Washington Post Edwards wrote an op-ed headlined "Congress Must Be Clear," staking himself out as the Democrat most gung-ho to sic the troops on Saddam Hussein. Swallowing the WMD story hook, line and sinker, Edwards commanded his fellow senators to "send a clear message to Iraq and the world: America is united in its determination to eliminate forever the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction." Though he made obligatory noises about "an effort to rally the international community" and "real steps to win the peace" before invading, Edwards threw himself fully behind the Congressional resolution to authorize Bush's go-it-alone invasion of Iraq.

"Either he was a hawk, or he didn't know what he was talking about, or he was guilty of the worst kind of political pandering," Kromm says. "I thought, 'You're trying to appeal to progressives, but you've already lost them.' I'm not sure he ever recovered from that."

In an interview after the UNC speech, Edwards finally utters the words he'd assiduously avoided during the last campaign: "I voted for the resolution," he says. "It was a mistake." So far, so good. But he goes on, "The hard question is, What do you do now? Looking back, it's easy to say that it was wrong and based on false information. Anybody who doesn't admit that isn't honest, and that's the truth." So what now? "I myself feel conflicted about it," Edwards replies. "But we have to find ways -- and I don't mean just yanking all the troops tomorrow -- but we have to find ways to start bringing our troops home. Our presence there is clearly contributing to the problem." So does he agree with Senator Russ Feingold that Washington should set a withdrawal deadline? "No. Even if we're going to say that internally, that we're gonna have our troops out by X date, there's no reason to announce that to the world. I think that's probably a mistake." He doesn't agree, either, with Senator Clinton's call for more U.S. troops to finish the job? "No sir!" Edwards says, sitting straight up in his chair. "Did she really say that?"

Three Lessons for Victory

Edwards steadfastly declines to revisit the last campaign. "If you don't mind," he says, "I'd rather talk about the future." But as he touts his antipoverty crusade and dissects the morass Democrats find themselves mired in, it is clear that Edwards has done some hard thinking about the lessons of 2004 -- and about the political opportunity that presented itself in the terrible wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Lesson One: Stop thinking small. "I think in our effort to be elected, we've become minimalists, tinkering around the edges -- Our tax cut is better than yours, or, We'll give you smaller class sizes," he says. "That's not what the country wants. We've got to give the American people something big and important to be unified by. Republicans use big things to divide America. I think we can use big things to unite America."

Chief among those "big things," clearly, is an all-out effort to conquer poverty. "Both sides bear responsibility for what's happened," he says. "During the Great Depression with Franklin Roosevelt, during the 1960s with Lyndon Johnson's great War on Poverty and Bobby Kennedy going through Appalachia -- we were the party that led the fight against poverty in this country. We've got to show some backbone and stand up for the folks who are struggling. We've done it in the past, but it's been a while."

Which brings us to Lesson Two: Democrats can't afford to keep ceding the "values vote." Here again, Edwards sees his antipoverty crusade as a step in the right direction. "In a country of our wealth, to have 37 million people living in poverty? It's a huge moral issue," he says. "There's a hunger in this country for a sense of national community, that we're not in this thing by ourselves. There's been a long period of selfish thinking. I think there's a great opportunity for us to be about a big, moral cause that's bigger than people's own self-interest."

But will that message fly among the evangelical voters who've twice put George W. Bush over the top? "Shoot," says Edwards. "I could go right now to just about any church in Alabama or Georgia and speak about poverty, and I know people will respond." Ferrel Guillory, a longtime political reporter who now runs the UNC Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, says that might be -- in typical Edwards fashion -- a bit too optimistic. "Edwards is not going to appeal to the religious right," Guillory says. "But he could make a strong appeal to 'values voters' who are not hard-core conservatives."

Steve Jarding, the rural strategist who set fundraising records running Edwards's PAC in 2002 before leaving the campaign in frustration, thinks his moral spin on the "two Americas" message has real potential in Middle America. "Let's face it: There are millions of families sitting down at the table tonight, parents working two or three jobs and struggling to survive. Are they sitting there saying, Thank God two gay people aren't getting married? or, I'm so glad the girl down the street can't get an abortion? That's not what's tearing their families apart. If Edwards will stand up and tell them that, he could change the turf."

Lesson Three is also about changing the turf: Democrats, who've now lost every state in the nation's largest region in two straight elections, have to take their message south. "Look," Edwards says, "the fact is, if you lose the whole South, you've got almost no margin of error in the rest of the country. But it's more than that. We have to make it clear we've got a vision for the whole country, not just blue states."

Edwards won't criticize his 2004 running mate, Kerry, who declared even before the Democratic primaries that he believed a Democrat could win without going south -- and then tried to make good on that belief, pulling Democratic national money, along with the Southerner he tapped for Vice President, out of every Southern state but Florida. Bush ended up winning every Southern state -- except Edwards's North Carolina -- by a larger margin than in 2000. "If you were in a state like Alabama last year," Edwards acknowledges, "you didn't hardly know we were running."

Conventional wisdom says that an antipoverty, pro-labor campaign would be approximately as popular in the South as William Tecumseh Sherman (or Senator Kerry). But the new-model John Edwards is all about flouting conventional Democratic thinking. And Guillory, for one, believes economic populism can work in Dixie as textile mills and furniture factories continue to close down. "There's a heightened awareness of economic peril and dislocation in the South, resulting from shifts in the job market," he says. "There's a greater awareness that the affluence and growth has not been evenly distributed, that it's been a kind of creative destruction -- creating and destroying at the same time."

But Edwards has to broaden his focus beyond poverty to make his populist message a winner at the polls. "It's not just about the poor," says Pete MacDowell. "Where is he on healthcare, jobs policy, urban policy, immigration, creating jobs with alternative energy sources -- all these issues where the Democrats have just been saying and doing zero?"

Edwards says his New America Initiative will address the middle-class squeeze as well as poverty. But he thinks the key to Southern votes involves something that transcends policy positions. "These are the kinds of people that respond to strength and leadership," he says. "They want leaders who have the backbone to stand up for something. We're not Republicans. When we try to be some lighter version of what we are, which is what happens over and over, it's devastating to Democrats. Why would they choose us?"

Tough Questions, and the Next Challenge

For Democrats looking to 2008, of course, the question is somewhat different: Why choose Edwards? For all the cogency of his diagnosis of what ails the Democrats, and all the undeniable passion of his antipoverty campaign, even Edwards's admirers wonder whether he's chosen the right pilot program for "thinking big again." And even as he drowns those "insincerity" and "shallowness" whispers in a sea of noble intentions and bright proposals, Edwards still manages to revive the old, stubborn doubts.

Just before the Opportunity Rocks tour took flight, BusinessWeek Online broke the news that Edwards, who had been vowing to "pour everything I've got into this cause," had been hired as a "global consultant" for Fortress Investment Group, a global asset-management firm. So while he set out to inspire college students, Edwards found himself answering a fresh batch of hard questions. "This is another thing that I'm doing that'll take a relatively small amount of time," he protested after the UNC speech. "It's an opportunity for me to explore sort of what's happening with the global economy." Asked another hard question -- Is it realistic to talk about "eradicating" poverty? -- Edwards resorts to pie-in-the-sky. "Of course it's realistic," he says, flashing an incredulous look. "It's completely realistic. I don't see the eradication of poverty here in this country as this huge, mammoth thing."

Edwards is far more persuasive when asked whether his antipoverty campaign is just a political tool. "Look, to be honest, it's all very personal for me. I've seen everything, been everything, from poor to lower middle class, then regular middle class and then just skyrocketing, you know, when I was a lawyer. What happened to me is that I started thinking as I got older about this. I saw some of the people I'd grown up with going the other way, getting in trouble, having a really terrible time getting by. These were my friends when I was growing up and here I was, doing great. It was no great policy revelation, just a sense that something was wrong, that, Why am I the one who's gotten the good luck and they didn't?"

While Edwards insists that his latest campaign "ought to be nonpartisan," its success in keeping him in the national limelight will determine whether he can make a viable charge at Hillary Clinton in 2008. In one recent poll Clinton led the likely pack of Democratic contenders with 42 percent; Edwards was a distant second at 14. "I wouldn't put much stock in that, though," says Ferrel Guillory. "For all you read about Hillary Clinton, she's not scaring away contenders. She's going to lead in the polls right up till the primaries start, because she's the celebrity. But the people making her out to be inevitable are Republicans. They'd love nothing better, especially in the South."

Edwards has a leg up in a survey that may mean more. According to a Pew Center poll released in late October, his favorability rating among Democrats not only bests Hillary's, 68 to 59 percent, but even that of the original Clinton, Bill, who stands at 64. And while John Kerry's unfavorable rating is a sad 48 percent among the Democrats who just last year nominated him for President, Edwards's "unfavorable" is easily the lowest, at 32 -- and the survey showed he's the best liked, and least loathed, among Republicans and independents, too.

Up against Clinton II's New Democratic moderation, Edwards might end up grappling with a once-unthinkable perception of him as -- ye gods! -- an old-style liberal, more worried about the plight of poor black folk than struggling white folk. "His message has to make sense to middle-class voters," says Guillory. "He has to have the 'moral values' component, but he also has to be hardheaded. To be effective in terms of politics and poverty, you have to come at it counterintuitively. Clinton did that."

The time could be ripe for an economic populism that goes beyond Clinton's piecemeal approach. "Circumstances beyond John's control may have elevated his central issue of poverty to where it can catapult him politically," says Steve Jarding. "Those images from New Orleans, not unlike when the planes hit the towers in New York -- they'll be seared into people's minds for a while. America was embarrassed by it. We've been told for so long that the government is the enemy. Now people see that we need it; it's just not working."

Edwards's great challenge, finally, may be convincing the skeptical millions that he's the one who can make things work. "He's raised poverty to a presidential-level conversation for the first time in forty years," says Guillory. "You've got to give him credit for that. And given the shallowness of his experience in politics, the way he vaulted right over the lower rungs of the ladder -- it's an amazing story. But now that he's there, he's got to do more than make us laugh and make us cry. He's got to paint a clearer picture of where he's going to take the country."

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