U.S.

Is John Edwards the Next Robert Kennedy?

John Edwards is a smart politician who knows the value of modesty. When asked about Robert F. Kennedy, he says simply, "I don't deserve to be compared to him." But throughout his campaign for the Democrat's 2008 presidential nomination, Edwards has not-so-subtly encouraged the Kennedy comparison. He notes that no presidential candidate "in 40 years"—since Kennedy—has run a campaign centered on the plight of America's poor. Last week he ended his three-day, 1,800-plus-mile "Road to One America" poverty tour in Prestonburg, Ky., the town where, four decades earlier, Kennedy concluded his own tour of impoverished Appalachia. "I want you to join us," Edwards told his audience, "to end the work Bobby Kennedy started."

Kennedy's crusade against poverty enthralled many Americans. So far, Edwards's crusade has not. Hoping for heavy press coverage for the poverty tour, the former North Carolina senator's campaign enlisted a national media entourage to travel with him on a large chartered jet. But by the time the tour reached its halfway point, Edwards was barely making the national papers.

Even the candidate's own wife, Elizabeth, managed to steal some of her husband's spotlight. On day two of the tour, Salon.com published an interview with Elizabeth in which she said front runner Hillary Clinton was not necessarily "as good an advocate for women" as Edwards. Edwards denied that his wife's comments detracted from his poverty message. "Anything can attract attention away," he said. "If Senator Obama went out and said something outrageous, that would attract attention away." But Barack Obama is a rival candidate, a NEWSWEEK reporter pointed out; the Edwardses were on the same team. Surely, husband and wife coordinated their messages. Edwards raised his eyebrows: "You think so?"

There is something tragic about Edwards's failure to break through. Today, 37 million Americans live below the poverty line, 12 million more than at the time of Kennedy's death. And yet Edwards's call of conscience has not resonated. By all rights, Edwards, the son of a millworker, should have an easier time talking about poverty than did Kennedy, the son of a millionaire. His difficulty speaks to the candidate's inability to connect. It also speaks to the nation's inability to be moved.

John Edwards is too perfect to be Robert Kennedy. In popular memory, all Kennedys are immaculately tailored and silver-tongued. But Robert was not John; the younger Kennedy's hair was wild and unkempt, his tie was eternally askew, his eyes were lined with crow's-feet from too many hours in the sun. At political rallies, his voice would wobble and his hands would shake. In his biography "Robert Kennedy: His Life," NEWSWEEK's Evan Thomas describes Kennedy the politician as "childlike," a frightened younger son who "loved ice cream and squirmed on a dais." This vulnerability was Kennedy's special grace. In the boy peeking out behind the curtain of manly toughness, Americans, especially the poor, saw themselves. Like them, he suffered and struggled greatly.

Edwards too has suffered. He was born into poverty; his eldest son was killed in a car accident at the age of 16; his wife is fighting bravely against terminal cancer. But he shows no sign of struggle. His face is tan but unaged. His famous hair is not just well coiffed, it is nearly immobile and lacks even a touch of gray. Edwards says his notorious $400 haircut and his 28,000-square-foot house are the obsessions of the media, not "normal voters." (He does have a snarkier press corps than RFK. Not only did reporters not criticize the size of Kennedy's Virginia mansion, they wrote fawning prose about the senator in the hopes of scoring an invitation.) He is also quick to point out that other rich men—like Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy himself—were able to help the poor. But fundamentally, the problem caused by the house and haircut is not the appearance of hypocrisy. Rather, it is the perception that Edwards will pay any price to maintain his flawless veneer.

For RFK, authenticity also meant impulsiveness. Touring poor areas of the South, Kennedy would sometimes order his caravan to halt so he could chat with poor children he passed on the roadside. Edwards seems uncomfortable deviating from an established script. Touring a struggling Cleveland neighborhood last week, he walked slowly, letting the TV cameramen set the pace.

Still, Edwards's problems may have less to do with his personal shortcomings than with the reality that RFK's America is gone. Kennedy's poverty crusade came in the waning hours of American utopia. A generation that had lived through the Great Depression and fought World War II still believed no challenge was out of its reach. "For the first time in our history it is possible to conquer poverty," Lyndon Johnson told Congress in 1964, and the country believed him.


Outrage came easier in that optimistic America. On a 1967 trip to the Mississippi Delta, Kennedy found windowless shacks filled with poor black children, starving to death. He was stunned and so was the nation. "Seeing those children with distended bellies and sores that wouldn't heal on the 'CBS Evening News' that night," recalls Peter Edelman, one of Kennedy's close aides, "the country was really shocked."

There are fewer distended bellies in Edwards's America but there is also less outrage. Today's middle class is driven by its own economic insecurity. Educated professionals worry about health-care costs, mortgage payments and simply getting by. Sensitive to this reality, Edwards says that when he talks of "two Americas," he means not the rich and the poor but the rich and "everyone else." Indeed, many of the cornerstones of Edwards's economic agenda, like universal health care and federal penalties for predatory lenders, have appeal on both sides of the poverty line. But even Edwards admits working Americans have trouble swallowing the notion they have more in common with poor people than they do with the affluent.

Edwards also faces a credibility gap in a country grown cynical since Kennedy's death. He truly means it when he tells audiences they can "eliminate poverty within a generation," for his own biography proves it is possible. But to a weary nation worried about the war in Iraq, the threat of terror and the health of the planet, his words sound like more empty promises from a politician.

Edwards is most believable, most like Bobby Kennedy, when he simply listens. At a forum in Wise, Va., on the final day of the poverty tour, he became visibly moved as he took in the tales of poor Virginians and Kentuckians who'd lived most of their lives without health care. "Are you all listening?" he demanded as he turned to his press corps with a searing, and genuine, rage. The reporters did not respond. Neither has the country, yet. While Edwards has maintained his position as the front runner in several recent polls of Iowa caucusgoers, a New Hampshire poll last week showed him slipping into fourth place behind Clinton, Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. After the Wise forum, a NEWSWEEK reporter asked Edwards how he'll help the poor if he doesn't win the presidency. "When you're running for president ... you can't accept even the notion that it's not going to be successful," he said. "But I know this is my life's work."

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