John Edwards Fires Up His Populism

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Former Senator John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, campaign for President in Marks, Mississippi. July 16, 2007.

After three days on the road with John Edwards in some of the poorest places in America, it's not only the depth of human need that hits you, but the layered and interlocking complexity of it — the way a complete lack of health care, for instance, can all by itself consign someone to ignorance and joblessness. But you're also struck by how so many of the people who have been dealt these difficult hands manage to play them with grace and fortitude. That may sound trite to some ears, but it probably wouldn't to anyone who has spent time with James Lowe.

Lowe is 51 years old, a disabled coal miner from the hollows of Eastern Kentucky. He has never been one to get up in front of a crowd. Until last year, he wouldn't have been able to speak to the crowd even if he wanted to. He was born with a severe cleft palate; when he tried to talk he could not make himself understood, so after a while he stopped trying. He was one of 10 children, born to parents too poor to pay for the treatment he needed, and of course there was no insurance. Embarrassed by his condition, Lowe dropped out of school in fifth grade without learning to read or write, and eventually followed his father into the mines — and still couldn't afford treatment. Twenty-three years ago he was partially paralyzed in a mining accident and could no longer perform manual labor. That didn't leave him many options.

Lowe lived a mute and by his own account diminished life for five decades in all before he finally got a break last year. He made it happen by standing in line for 13 hours at the Wise Country Fairgrounds in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, where a nonprofit volunteer group called the Rural Area Medical Health Expedition once a year provides free medical and dental treatment to all comers. For thousands of men and women like Lowe who crowd the health fair every year, it represents the only medical care they ever receive. The dentists couldn't help Lowe on the spot but got him in to see someone who could, and now he has a dental prosthesis that allows him to speak pretty well. And so here he was on Wednesday morning — back at the fairgrounds rung by red-clay cliffs and sitting in front of the national media beside former Senator John Edwards and a group of health advocates, all because he wanted to say thank you to the people who had helped him. "We grew up hard, had nothing," he said, slim as a stick, with thick brown hair combed straight back from a well-worn face that's anchored by a salt-and-pepper goatee. "But what these people done for me made me feel like a whole different person."

Lowe seemed to be tolerating rather than enjoying all the attention, and he looked a bit startled when Edwards, kicking off the third and final day of his eight-state poverty tour, seized on his story and got angry on his behalf. "We have to do something about this! This is not okay!" the candidate said. "How can we allow this to happen, that James had to live 50 years without treatment? Are you listening? This is America's problem. And let me tell you, as long as I am alive and breathing I'm going to do something about it!"

Edwards told James Lowe's story at every stop for the rest of the day, and not only because it was a powerful way to mention that the universal health care he proposes has a guaranteed dental benefit. Edwards talked about him because Lowe is the kind of person he knew growing up in the Carolinas, and his story made a powerful connection. This was the day the Edwards poverty tour rolled into John Edwards's own part of the country, and surrounded by working people the candidate caught fire on their behalf. "James told us how grateful he was to be able to talk — something he has spent almost all his life not being able to do," Edwards said in Prestonburg, Kentucky, later that day, at the big rally that ended his tour in the same place where Senator Robert F. Kennedy finished his own poverty tour 40 years ago. "Instead of being angry about it, James was proud. He was strong. He showed the kind of character that I think represents what America is. These people, people like my father, people like James Lowe, they're the people who built America — not these people on Wall Street."

Edwards' populism was heating up — and threatening to boil over. Though he had sometimes seemed distracted on this tour, as if holding something back during so many sessions with so many needy people, his passion had been building since the night before in Pittsburgh, as he weaved stories from the past two days into his remarks and brought into sharp focus the themes of his poverty tour: That it is wrong for millions of Americans to have no medical care. That it is wrong for millions of Americans to work full time yet live in poverty. And on Wednesday he began linking the problems of the poor to the economic anxieties of the middle class in a way he had not often done over the previous two days. It's a linkage he'll undoubtedly make again and again as he builds his message in the coming months and tries to reinvigorate his campaign. "I've been asked by some of the media, 'Senator, the two Americas you talk about, is it the rich and the poor?' No. It's not. The two Americas are the very rich and everybody else."

If our politics are entering a new populist phase, Edwards isn't about to be left behind. On Wednesday in Prestonburg, the same day Barack Obama was delivering a speech on urban poverty, Edwards went after the fat cats in his own income bracket with real fervor. "We have the greatest economic inequality we've had in America since the great Depression," he said. "We're now made up of a few rich people who are doing extremely well and everybody else. Washington's response has been 'Greed is good. Take care of the lobbyists. Take care of the special interests.' There's another two Americas that exist in this country: there's one for the lobbyists, for the special interests, for the powerful, for the big multinational corporations and there's another one for everybody else. Well I'm here to say that their America is over!"

He didn't spell out how he intended to shut down the America of the influence peddlers, but nobody really expected him to. It was a satisfying moment for the hundreds of people in the crowd, who shouted lustily as Edwards thundered away. At a press conference after the speech, Edwards was asked how he'll respond to the inevitable accusations of class warfare. "I would say that we have in fact two different Americas," he replied. "It's a reality. I'm not against people doing well. I'm a leading example of someone who has done extremely well. Elizabeth and I have everything you could ever have. But the problem today is that the opportunities are being denied. That's actually why I'm running for President. If you call wanting to give everybody a chance 'class warfare,' then so be it. That's what I'm for."

Whatever else happens to Edwards this year, whatever his candidacy becomes, it matters that he spent three days talking about the problems of people like James Lowe. Maybe Edwards succeeds in linking those problems to the concerns of the middle class and ignites his candidacy. And maybe he doesn't. Either way, he did some good this week and won at least one vote. "It means the world to me that he come down here," said James Lowe. "He's talking about helping working people? He's listening to people like me? To me, that means everything."