It was a nice touch. John Edwards returned to New Orleans, the shattered city where he began his presidential campaign, to announce that he was withdrawing from the race. Well over two years have passed since George W. Bush stood in Jackson Square and lied about his intention to do whatever he could to repair the damage that Hurricane Katrina—and three levels of incompetent government—had inflicted on the people of Louisiana. But Edwards did not return in order to take one more shot at an increasingly diminished and thoroughly discredited president. Instead, he was there to remind us all of our own complicity in the neglect of this great city and its people, hundreds of thousands of whom will, it appears, never be able to come home.
The usual pundits on the usual networks spent a small part of yesterday speculating on Edwards' failure to gain traction in his competition with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They even entertained the possibility that they may have been partly to blame. Edwards, after all, had beaten Senator Clinton in Iowa, but was still treated as an afterthought as the campaign moved on to New Hampshire. From the beginning, he was the third wheel, and even coming in second did not change that fact. The Democrats were about to make history with one of two political superstars and John Edwards was simply in the way. Clinton and Obama were box office; Edwards was not.
As you might suspect, media types rarely enjoy critical self-examination, and the subject changed quickly. Perhaps we should blame Edwards for his own problems, they said. Nobody told him to get that $400 hair cut (of course, nobody told reporters to cover that event like it was the fall of Berlin, either, but never mind). Didn't he open himself up to charges of hypocrisy by speaking endlessly about poverty while living in an ostentatious mansion? Mother Teresa of Calcutta did not spend her weekends dropping in for dye jobs and hair extensions at José Eber. Yes, that was it, Edwards undermined his own appeal by not living in a shanty and not getting the six dollar special at Supercuts.
Also, there were the polls. Sure, Edwards managed to eke out a narrow second place finish over Clinton in Iowa, but his numbers in New Hampshire still projected him to a third place result. Why give him equal billing until he has earned it? The talking heads insisted that all it would have taken for John Edwards to be the new media darling was a victory in New Hampshire. Or Iowa. Or Nevada. Or South Carolina.
There is some truth to this, of course, but it ignores two rather obvious responses. First, the arrow between media attention and public support goes in both directions. In 1984, Gary Hart's unexpected second place showing in Iowa thrust him into the national spotlight, and the resulting momentum fueled his upset victory over Walter Mondale in New Hampshire. Edwards might have benefited similarly from that sort of unpaid advertising. Second, and more telling, Rudy Giuliani continued to be treated as a serious presidential candidate even as he stumbled to consecutive single-digit finishes in all of the early primaries and caucuses. Perhaps Edwards does not have as strong a complaint against the media as, say, Ron Paul (who raised millions of dollars but received Kucinich-like treatment), but he certainly faced a consistent benign neglect from the press corps and their talking head pundits.
None of this, however, really explains why John Edwards was unable to mount a successful campaign for president. Obviously, he lacked Barack Obama's eloquence and charisma, but he surely compared favorably on both counts to Hillary Clinton. Yeah, a few people probably did fall for all that hypocrisy talk and the media's idiotic obsession with the most important haircut since Samson met Delilah, but that story was played out long before the onset of 2008. And though he may have received less news coverage than his rivals, he spent plenty of time on screen. He wasn't exactly Duncan Hunter.
In my view, Edwards' problems were more fundamental, and they tell us a lot about how we see ourselves as a country and how we expect our presidential candidates to behave. We might begin, in fact, where the former senator's own campaign started, in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Successful politicians typically tell us pleasant and reassuring things about ourselves. Edwards did not. Instead, he reminded us of the widening gap between what we want to be and what we have become. His backdrop was not Ronald Reagan's mythical shining city of a hill. Instead, it was symbolic of how badly we have fallen short, how we—not just George W. Bush, but we—have failed to keep our promise to fellow Americans who desperately need our help. John Edwards was the candidate of cognitive dissonance.
Barack Obama has compared himself to Reagan, and in many ways the comparison is apt. Ronald Reagan excelled at telling America what it wanted to hear, that we were a good, generous, and confident people and that we could overcome any obstacle in our path by harnessing our ingenuity and our righteousness. Obama's message is, in that respect, nearly identical. Indeed, it is even slightly more appealing. His text may be borrowed from the Gipper, but it is his subtext that is truly seductive: not only will an Obama presidency restore hope and unity to the United States, but it will also validate our fondest wish that the greatest stain on our national honor—centuries of racism and bigotry—may finally begin to fade.
Hillary Clinton, unable to master her rival's soaring rhetoric, takes a different—but similarly appealing—tack. In her world, the horrors of the early 21st Century—Katrina, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib—are the work of the incumbent president. Her campaign insists that we are blameless for the deterioration of our national soul over the past seven years. The restoration of the House of Clinton will return us to that time before our country became both laughingstock and pariah. We can once again be the can-do, peacemaking, internationally beloved America that we were in the Roaring '90s. We need only banish George W. Bush and his corrupt political party. They are at fault for the degradation of America's good name; we the people are not.
One candidate promises a better future; another tempts us with a return to a more glorious past. Against such opponents, how did John Edwards ever stand a chance? His was perhaps a message of hope, but it was the message of hope offered by the counselor at Alcoholics Anonymous. Move past denial and admit you have a problem. Then roll up your sleeves and get to work on digging yourself out of the hole you have helped create. Seek forgiveness from those you have harmed and offended. Be a better person.
The problem with the A.A. message is that it only works when you have hit rock bottom. We are, at least in the minds of most Americans, not there yet. We prefer to think that the solutions to our problems are relatively easy and can be accomplished by either embracing charismatic leadership or turning back the clock to a happier, gentler era.
John Edwards offered us only a mirror and a shovel, one with which to look honestly at ourselves and the other to begin the hard work of making things right. And now he is gone.