America just lost its best and brightest hope for real change when John Edwards gave up the presidential ghost. Edwards did something that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and certainly none of the Republicans would dream of doing. He made poverty no longer a dirty word in the mouths of many, and that included Clinton and Obama, for a minute anyway. But Edwards didn't stop there. He relentlessly pushed the envelope on America's next greatest crime and sin, the absolute refusal of the nation to provide decent health care for more than fifty million persons no matter whether poor, working class, middle class and even some with a few bucks to spare. He didn't stop even there. He hammered corporate and special interests for their shameless and unabashed pillage, loot, and rape of American consumers.
Edwards was truly a modern day Jeremiah crying in the wilderness against poverty, corporate greed, and the health care abomination, and predictably was bum rushed by the gaggle of ultra-conservative slam artists, the Fox network crowd, talk shock jocks, and the New York Times neo-liberal bunch. They slandered, slurred, and ridiculed him, and ultimately tried to marginalize him as a bare after thought, warm up act to Clinton and Obama.
Edward's much needed and almost never heard populist message didn't mark him as a threat. The fact that he could win and would have been in a position to deliver on his heartfelt advocacy made him a threat. The seeds of the attack were there from the start. He had barely stepped out of the barber salon early in the campaign when the pokes and digs started. He was the butt of laughs and late night TV talk show gags for committing the unpardonable sin of blowing $400 on a haircut.
The barbs and the taunts didn't stop even after he shrugged it off as fun and games stuff. Months later David Letterman took another hair shot at him when he grabbed at his hair and tried to muss it up during his appearance on Letterman's late night show. This slapstick silliness wouldn't have raised an eyebrow since he is a wealthy guy who made millions as a corporate lawyer. But it was the poverty thing that raised the hackles of his rich pals. This was not just a cheap campaign ploy to give him an edge over the other candidates. He made the case that nearly forty million poor people in the world's richest country is an abomination that nobody seemed to want to talk about it, let alone do anything about it. It was irksome enough that the GOP presidents and presidential candidates would stay silent on the plight of the poor. It was downright infuriating that his Democratic opponents would also stay mute on the issue.
Edwards put his body where his mouth was. He barnstormed through eight poor regions of the South in July 2007 with his modern day version of an anti-poverty fact finding campaign. He kicked off his three day campaign in New Orleans 9th Ward. The nearly all-black area suffered the worst Katrina flood devastation and had become the universal symbol of poverty and neglect. Worse it stood as tragic testament to the failed and broken promises of recovery made by corporations and the federal government.
His poverty crusade stirred a mild flutter for a couple of months with Obama and Clinton, but again only a mild flutter, and any talk of a crusade against poverty has disappeared from their campaign lexicon faster than a Houdini disappearing act. And now that he's out of the White House hunt, the chance that it'll reappear in their spiels is zilch.
Edwards became the first Democratic presidential candidate to go where no other Dem or certainly Republican candidate has gone in four decades and talked up poverty disgrace, universal health and economic democracy. He bucked history, negative public and political attitudes, and of course ridicule for championing these populist causes. But here's the deal. Edwards may be out of the race but his message and the reason for that message won't disappear like Houdini. Obama and Clinton will continue to pilfer and repackage parts of his message, while of course giving no credit to the messenger.
No matter. Edwards did himself, us and the nation proud when he boldly stepped up and tried to shame the shot callers into facing up to their sorry and disgraceful neglect of millions of poor and uninsured Americans. We owe Edwards a profound debt of gratitude for that. Here's a guess. Edwards won't and shouldn't go quietly into the night. We still desperately need his voice and we should do everything we can to make sure that his voice continues to be heard.
John, you have my eternal thanks for who you are and what you did. You are truly the better angel of America.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).