The limits of John Edwards' rare talent.

The limits of John Edwards' rare talent.

The limits of John Edwards' rare talent.

Politics and policy.
Jan. 26 2004 2:39 AM

"It" Boy

The limits of John Edwards' rare talent.

"The senator is in the building!"

That's how John Edwards' arrival gets announced Sunday afternoon at Fairgrounds Junior High School in Nashua, N.H. If it sounds like a rock concert, that's no accident. As advertised, Edwards is no career politician. He's an artist on his way to becoming a celebrity. That's a good thing in some ways and a bad thing in others.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Bill Barry, the chair of Edwards' campaign in Nashua, tells the crowd he met Edwards two years ago and sensed that Edwards had "It." Barry doesn't explain what "It" is—the whole point of "It" is that it can't be explained—but he recalls the last politician in whom he sensed it: Bill Clinton. As Barry tells it, three days before the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Clinton stood on this very stage, and Barry felt a surge in the room, which led to Clinton's famous "comeback" on primary day and eventually to Clinton's eight-year presidency. Barry says he feels the same surge today.

There's a lot of Clinton in Edwards: charm, handsome youth, Southern electability. Physically, Edwards is more gifted. Clinton used his voice and face to convey a range of emotions. Edwards uses his whole body. On television, you don't get to see this, because candidates are framed from the chest up. In person, you begin to understand what made Edwards a great courtroom lawyer. He bends at the knees, pivots at the hips, tilts to the side, and uses his hands to frame each pose. His fingers are as fluidly expressive as those of a sign-language interpreter. He caps today's performance with his right arm extended skyward and his left hip cocked like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It's a great show.

Is there more to Edwards than that? Yes. He's got a compilation of detailed policy ideas, a copy of which he waves onstage in Nashua. He's also got an innovative message about work and fairness. Edwards says the working poor deserve better not because they're poor but because they're working. He tells the Nashua audience he'll end the days of "any American working full-time and living in poverty." He promises to make college financially accessible to anyone who "is willing to work." He recalls loading tractor-trailers to pay his way through college. In the Q-and-A after his speech, he says he'll raise the capital gains tax on people earning more than $300,000 to "make sure we treat work income with the same respect we treat wealth income."

With Clinton's charm and political ingenuity comes some of Clinton's fakery. Edwards sweet-talks each audience the way a lothario tells each girl she's his true love. He tells the folks in Nashua, "The people of New Hampshire are very blunt"—the same practiced compliment he paid to Iowans two weeks earlier. Sometimes Edwards rubs his hands together as he smiles during ovations, as though he's plotting something. More often, he breaks into a huge, cheesy grin as the crowd applauds one of his lines, even when the line was about something awful. Today the grin pops up as Edwards bemoans the millions of Americans living in poverty and again as he decries the "crowd of insiders" running the government.

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How does such a self-conscious performer earn people's trust? In part, by commiserating with their suspicions. He mocks pharmaceutical companies for running misleading television ads and passing on the cost to consumers. He mocks predatory lenders for offering zero percent interest rates that suddenly jump to nearly 20 percent, destroying debtors. He mocks President Bush for claiming to be a "uniter." Edwards' message to cynics is: Like you, I see through the bull and call it what it is. Therefore, you can trust me.

Edwards' other trick is what all good confidence men do: They offer you their trust first. "I believe in you, and you deserve a president who believes in you," Edwards tells the spectators in Nashua. For weeks, this has been the concluding line of every Edwards speech. It shortcuts the question of whether you should have faith in a showman to run the country. Of course you should, because he has faith in you.

Actually, what people doubt most about Edwards isn't his sincerity, but his readiness for the job. "I've been getting ready for this fight my whole life," he asserts. At no point does Edwards explain why, in that case, he chose to spend the first two decades of his career as a plaintiff's attorney rather than as a public servant or policy advocate. Instead, he assures the Nashua audience that he has "learned so much and grown so much" from listening to New Hampshire voters in more than 100 town hall meetings. He likens doubts about his presidential readiness to the doubts he overcame earlier in his career. First the elites thought he couldn't hack law school because nobody else in his family had even been to college. Then they thought he couldn't win cases against big-league corporate lawyers. Then they thought he couldn't beat the "Helms machine." But he did.

"I beat 'em, and I beat 'em, and I beat 'em," boasts Edwards as the crowd whoops with delight. "And now I'm the senior senator from North Carolina, not Jesse Helms." Well, yes. But what does that show? That Edwards knows how to govern? Or just that he knows how to campaign?

To Edwards, that isn't the point. The point is that doubting his preparedness for the presidency is just another manifestation of the dismissive snobbery ordinary Americans face all the time. "How many times has somebody said to you, you can't do this?" Edwards asks the people in Nashua. "You and I can do this together." That's his closing pitch to the apprehensive voters who hold his fate in their hands: I'm ready if you are.