“Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America – middle-class America – whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America – narrow-interest America – whose every wish is Washington’s command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a president.” – John Edwards, 2004
Poverty – particularly among the working poor – has really only started to become a headline-worthy issue in the last four or five years when a significant number of people who had perhaps been just on the edge of poverty fell into it thanks to the economic collapse of 2008. At various points in history, of course, poverty and welfare have appeared on the mass media radar, and occasionally escaped from the lips of politicians. Mostly it has been all talk or has been negative, “shaming” talk (much like the 1980s rhetoric of Ronald Reagan demonizing the mythical “welfare queen”).
John Edwards, in focusing on poverty and inequality in America, may have been well ahead of the curve by focusing with laser-like intensity and precision – at the risk of his own political rise. Of course his penis and lies about what he was doing with it unzipped and undid him faster than his dedication to poverty-related issues, which is a shame when you look back on his rhetoric and ideas about America. He has been, as this article in The Atlantic described, been whitewashed from the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the platform the party stands on today is one he essentially built himself. I acknowledge that. It’s easy to gloss over the good Edwards did and would have tried to do given the mess he made of his personal life.
Who among us does not make a mess of our personal life? Most of us screw up – sometimes on a grand scale – but most of us are not in the public eye and won’t suffer serious consequences – like becoming a national joke, destroying whatever is left of our very public marriage, sacrificing any and all chance of holding political office. Unfortunately, Edwards’s fight against economic inequality will always be overshadowed by his personal choices and lies.
Edwards championed those who can rarely speak for themselves and highlighted hard truths about class and economic divisions in America (that many Americans, struggling or not, do not like to admit about America. But it is still hard to make my mind about him – I suppose my approach can be as complex as who Edwards actually is. It is not as though by making very poor decisions and very public mistakes (more than once) negates his role as a thought leader, activist or intelligent man. I suppose it just means that he was perhaps not that well-suited to become president.