Des Moines Register

Sunday, January 11, 2004

John Edwards -- his time is now
By Register Editorial Board

When we first met John Edwards, we were inclined to write him off as the possible Democratic presidential nominee. The North Carolina senator is short on experience in public office. Nearly all his rivals are far more seasoned.

They include a five-term governor who has energized the party's base; a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives who has been involved in every major national issue for 25 years; a prominent senator whose resume includes a distinguished war record.

Democrats could nominate any of those candidates with confidence they had chosen a worthy standard-bearer with the potential of being a successful president. The abundance of well-qualified candidates makes choosing among them difficult.

Until Edwards is given a closer look. The more we watched him, the more we read his speeches and studied his positions, the more we saw him comport himself in debate, the more we learned about his life story, the more our editorial board came to conclude he's a cut above the others.

John Edwards is one of those rare, naturally gifted politicians who doesn't need a long record of public service to inspire confidence in his abilities. His life has been one of accomplishing the unexpected, amid flashes of brilliance.

Edwards grew up around the textile mills in the Southeast. He describes his family as close-knit and hard-working - the kind of family that had to sit around the kitchen table to figure out what to sacrifice to send their son to college. Edwards played high school football, worked some summers in the mills and studied textiles at North Carolina State University, figuring on returning to the mills as his family's first college graduate.

Instead, he went on to law school at the University of North Carolina, where he met his future bride. Both became lawyers. John specialized in trial law, winning some of the most spectacular verdicts in North Carolina history and earning a small fortune by the time he was in his 40s. The couple endured the loss of a 16-year-old son in a highway accident in 1996. They have three surviving children.

In his first try for public office, Edwards defeated an incumbent Republican in 1998 to win a seat in the U.S. Senate from North Carolina. He financed his own campaign, avoiding contributions from lobbyists. In the Senate, he serves on the Intelligence Committee, a good place to get a crash course in national-security issues.

Now, at 50, Edwards is seeking the nomination for president.

On issues, the major contenders for the nomination aren't far apart. They differ in emphasis and detail, but all have the same general thrust: Roll back some or all of the Bush tax cuts and redirect the money into health care and education. Conduct a foreign policy that is more collaborative and less bellicose.

The underlying theme of the Democrats is that the government under President Bush is serving the interests of wealth and privilege, not of ordinary Americans. Howard Dean's call to "take our country back" is the rallying cry.

Dean has the slogan, but it is Edwards who most eloquently and believably expresses this point of view, with his trial-lawyer skill for distilling arguments into compelling language that moves a jury of ordinary people. He speaks of there being two Americas:

"One America does the work, while another America reaps the reward. One America pays the taxes, while another America gets the tax breaks. If we want America to be a growing, thriving democracy with the strongest middle class on Earth, we must choose a different path."

If Edwards wins the Democratic nomination, voters this fall would have a choice between two men who almost perfectly embody the rival political philosophies in America today. George W. Bush and John Edwards are attractive, likable, energetic. They have about the same level of prior experience in government - and they are polar opposites.

Bush is from a prominent family, attended Ivy League universities, made his fortune in business and fervently believes the philosophy of "a rising tide lifts all boats." His policies flow from the conviction that all Americans will gain if business is largely unfettered and if investors are better rewarded.

Edwards is from a working-class family, attended public universities, made his fortune representing ordinary people in the courtroom and fervently believes that America does best when doors of opportunity are open to anyone willing to work and get ahead. He says those opportunities are being choked off in an America today that rewards wealth, not work. Emblematic of his approach is his proposal to pay the first year's tuition to a state university or community college for any student willing to work.

Like all the Democratic candidates, Edwards is strongly critical of Bush, but with him it tends to be a little less personal. He emphasizes his goal is not merely to replace Bush but to change America. He tends to conduct positive, optimistic campaigns.

What a clear and attractive choice an Edwards vs. Bush fall campaign would offer. Beginning in the Iowa caucuses next Monday, Democrats would do well to give that choice to Americans.

Copyright © 2004 The Des Moines Register.  Reprinted by permission.  (Paul Anger Jan. 30, 2004)

"The Des Moines Register editorial board consists of Publisher Mary Stier, Editor Paul Anger, Editorial Page Editor Richard Doak, Deputy Editor Linda Fandel and editorial writers Rox Laird, Andie Dominick and Suzanne Nelson. We met toward the end of December to discuss the candidates and agreed to watch them for another 10 days or so, see how they came across at the nationally televised debate conducted by the Register, and then meet again to decide whom to endorse. We did meet early in the week of Jan. 5 and decided in rather short order to endorse Sen. Edwards. The endorsement represented the consensus and thoughts of the board, and was written by Doak." -- Paul Anger, Editor.