John Edwards's Legacy

I think it was somewhere between Centerville and Ottumwa that I first started to question John Edwards's sanity. Of course, 36 hours on a bus crisscrossing Iowa in the dead of winter and you're likely to question your own, as well. By then it was 5 a.m. on Jan. 2, and we weren't even halfway through Edwards's 900-mile Marathon for the Middle Class bus tour. We'd just left a pancake breakfast at the home of an Edwards supporter in Centerville: population 6,000. It was the third house we'd been to that night, and they were all starting to look the same: cozy living rooms packed with faces smiling over steaming mugs of coffee, a crackling fire and a Christmas tree, old ladies in sweatshirts with kittens stitched on the front, exhausted kids who'd clearly been dragged from bed to come support the cause. At each stop the press would layer up and stagger off the bus into the crunchy snow—a thermometer outside a small-town bank said it was two degrees—and then Edwards would come up the walkway and in through the front door to cheers of "Go, John, go!" beaming and shaking hands, still looking as starched and presidential as ever, and way too tan for Iowa in January.

The speeches were mostly the same, dripping with populism. He would rail against corporate greed and how it was stealing our children's future, talk about the honor of working-class folks and about the homeless shelter in Des Moines he'd visited the other week that turns away 75 families a month. He'd usually tell the story of Nataline Sarkisian, the 17 year-old girl from California who died in December when her health insurance company wouldn't pay for a liver transplant and remind them that he's the only candidate never to take a dime from a Washington lobbyist. With a clenched fist and a set jaw Edwards would finish by saying that America needed a fighter and that he was the guy they should send into the ring. And that when he was president—not if but when—he promised to fight for them with every fiber in his body. Then it was more smiles, a picture or two, and out the door, onto the bus and away into the night, down a dark road to the next stop. No one was going to outcampaign John Edwards. If he was going down, he was going down swinging. Some of us started wondering why we couldn't have been assigned to Fred Thompson. At least he slept, apparently a lot.

Edwards's campaign blitz in the final days before the Iowa caucuses sure seemed crazy at the time, but it's probably what gave him a one-point edge over Hillary Clinton—a difference of just seven delegates. The campaign spun the second-place finish as though it were a landslide victory. "America clearly voted for change. Now it's between us and Obama," the Edwards camp said, and headed off to New Hampshire with a sigh of relief. But over the next five days, whatever momentum Edwards had gained from Iowa was lost in the mix as the media fell over itself anointing Obama and sounding the death knell of Clinton, and then marveling at her snowy resurrection. Despite strong debate performances, Edwards couldn't buy his way into the conversation no matter what he did. Whenever members of the press chatted up advisers like Joe Trippi or Jonathan Prince, the frustration of being the odd man out always bubbled to the surface. But what could they do? A white guy in a race for president against a woman and an African-American: it was hard to compete for the story. Plus, it always struck me as just a bit off to watch Edwards, the handsome millionaire in a suit, with the sparkling teeth and the perfect hair, run as the champion of the working poor. Though his backstory was genuine—son of a mill worker, trial lawyer who spent 20 years suing corporations on behalf of the little guy—the performance never quite seemed right.

On the road Edwards always traveled in his bus, the Mainstreet Express, usually with his two young children and wife Elizabeth, and sometimes their 25-year-old daughter Cate. The press was for the most part relegated to a trailing van or bus. Our chances to ask him questions were limited to hasty "press avails" after events. Exclusives? There were none. And the few times he actually took the time to come talk to us on or off the record—he brought coffee onto our bus one morning in Iowa—he always struck me as no different from when he was on the stump, or even on TV for that matter. Maybe that's the mark of a good trial lawyer: always be convincing a jury. No matter what the polls said, Edwards's sunny and optimistic demeanor never flagged. Any suggestion of dropping out was quickly denied as implausible. "I'm in this till the end, and I intend to be my party's nominee," he'd say without even the slightest hint of irony or self-delusion.

So even after he got socked in Nevada and finished a distant third in his native South Carolina last weekend, I was surprised to hear the news that Edwards had dropped out. I'd always expected him to do what he said he would, to keep on keepin' on, at least until Feb. 5. Just two days ago his press office sent out an e-mail about his recent online fund-raising surge and his Super Tuesday strategy. It's too early to say whether his finances or the health of his cancer-stricken wife had anything to do with the decision, but maybe he just felt that his job was done. "The support was still there but over the last few days it became clear that the path to the nomination was not," said campaign spokesman Mark Kornblau. Though he never made much of a mark in the polls, Edwards has had a major impact on this race by driving the conversation, something he deserves a lot of credit for. He was the first candidate out with a universal health care plan and the first to rail against trade agreements like NAFTA that, he says, have cost America a million jobs. He also brought a sense of morality and social justice to the race, themes both Obama and Clinton have folded into their stump speeches over the last month. Through a year of hard campaigning, Edwards has forced the Democratic Party to refocus itself on the plight of the poor. In his resignation address in New Orleans Wednesday afternoon, Edwards said he had gotten both Clinton and Obama to pledge to make the eradication of poverty a central part of their administration. He finished by urging his supporters not to give up on what's possible and to keep on fighting. He wasn't giving up so much as passing his torch to a stronger, faster candidate. He is gone now, but Obama and Clinton go forward carrying a torch that Edwards lit.