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In Defense of John Edwards


For three decades, Bob Shrum put words together for some of our greatest leaders. He understands the power behind a word, a phrase, and a story. That is what makes his statements about former Senator John Edwards in his new tell-all book, No Excuses: Confessions of a Serial Campaigner so upsetting. And in Washington D.C., if you don't say that a story is false right away, then the fiction becomes fact in an instant.

For three years I helped write speeches for Senator Edwards. The criticism about his haircut, his house, and his work at a hedge fund is all fair. The press and the chattering class want to paint him as a hypocrite, claiming that a rich man -- a man who earned every penny -- can't be a champion for the poor. It's politics. It's fair. But, it's nonsense.

Thousands of wealthy men and women give back and have worked to end poverty in America and around the world. Let's name drop for a bit: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett Bono, Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, President Franklin Roosevelt, The Rockefellers, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Their work and their commitment aren't diminished because of their bank accounts, estates, or where they might go to get a haircut.

Senator Edwards has always talked about his rise from nothing into the land of blessings. That history is with him always and his effort to end poverty in 30 years isn't a political issue for him; it's part of his soul. He's not perfect. He's made some mistakes. He's human and that's why people like him. Politics is a blood sport. It can get nasty and I have done some bad things myself and most of those stories will go with me to my grave. But at some point, the criticism stops being fair, stops being politics, and crosses the line.

That is what happened with two stories in Shrum's new political tell-all. In one story, Shrum says that Senator Edwards told Senator Kerry who told Bob Shrum (that should be a real clue about how accurate this account is) a very personal story about the time his son Wade died and said that it was a story he told very few people about. Shrum writes, "...that after his son Wade had been killed, he climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, laid there and hugged his body..." According to Shrum, Kerry was "queasy" because Senator Edwards had recounted that story before and in the same words.

First, that is not how Senator Edwards described the story to me. He said that he saw his dead son, leaned in, and said good-bye. He never brought it up in a dramatic "I have to tell you something I never tell anyone" tone. And second, even if the story were true, to suggest that retelling a story about saying good-bye to his son is an example of his political ambition is insensitive.

Parents are given some free passes here on whether or not they remember telling people certain stories about their child's death. And how many human beings on this planet haven't said, "I want to tell you a story I haven't told anyone before" only to have forgotten they told that person last week. Hell, I did it over the duration of a phone call, once. That's about needing to take some more Ginkgo Biloba, not an example of him using his son's death for his political advantage.

The other story Shrum recalls is just as upsetting. In 1998, Shrum asked Senator Edwards about his opinion on gay rights. "What is your position, Mr. Edwards, on gay rights?" "I'm not comfortable around those people," Edwards replied."

First, pollster Harrison Hickman and Elizabeth Edwards were in the room and said that those words were never used by Senator Edwards in response to the question. And second, when you help write for someone for three years, you get to know them pretty well. The man I listened to in domestic and foreign policy discussions; the man I talked with on a plane after he'd learned about Elizabeth's breast cancer, and the man I watched shake hands and embrace thousands of unknown Americans is not a "those people" kind of man.

To suggest that Senator Edwards has had an evolution on how he views the rights of any American is incorrect. Senator Edwards' core principle has been and will always be: we are all equal, no matter where you were born, the color of your skin, or who you love. We all have the same worth.

What makes this so difficult is that Shrum is a good writer. He cares deeply about his country. He hired me to be apart of Senator John Kerry's speechwriting team after Senator Edwards withdrew from the race in 2004. We worked well together, especially that long week when he trusted me to put together the possible vice presidential announcement speeches. We worked over the phone on many drafts, for different people, but we both shared our hope that Senator Kerry would choose Senator Edwards.

To Shrum's credit, he certainly says some nice things about Senator Edwards in the book, but these two stories have over-powered that kindness.

But, Senator Edwards is an optimist. He's probably thinking, "If that crowd in DC doesn't like me, then that's a good thing because most of America doesn't like that crowd in DC." And unlike other leaders who might crawl into a corner from these incorrect stories, he'll keep working. He'll keep talking about tomorrow because he did say goodbye to his son. He'll keep working for equality because he did watch young African American children get sent upstairs at the movie theater. And he'll keep fighting poverty and fighting for economic justice with his great haircut because until everyone has the same chances that he's had, "the dream shall never die."