Don Davis

On Honoring Elizabeth Edwards's Legacy

Filed By Don Davis | December 16, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: campaign 2012, Democrats, Elizabeth Edwards, John Edwards, politics, Reform, Republicans, Two Americas

So it has come to pass that Elizabeth Edwards has died. elizabeth-edwards.jpgDespite having more things thrown at her than anyone I've ever had the chance to support in my entire political life, she managed to represent, in her very presence, a sense of grace and kindness and concern for those who were looking to have a better life than the one they had now, and I don't know that I could ever live up to the quiet courage she showed as her life came to an end. And, bless her heart, it appears that she took the time to make sure that her kids knew her, and that she helped them put away enough "past" to, hopefully, ease some of the pain of the future. But now the time has come to look beyond death, and, John...that's why I want to talk to you today.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond; But is there anything Beyond? This life cannot be All, they swear, For how unpleasant, if it were! One may not doubt that, somehow, Good Shall come of Water and of Mud; And, sure, the reverent eye must see A Purpose in Liquidity. --From the poem "Heaven", by Rupert Brooke
I am required to start this story with a great big "Full Disclosure": I was very much a John Edwards supporter during 2007, for reasons I laid out after seeing him in a small room in May of that year, and I was a contributor to the Edwards campaign website's "blogging community," I did not, and do not, contribute money to candidates, including Edwards--and that's so that I can write more dispassionately when it comes time to consider the endgame. That said, let's move on. One of the reasons I supported Edwards was because his campaign was the one that was, in a big way, talking about making poor people into middle-class people. Remember the "Two Americas" messaging? If you don't, he's famously quoted from his 2003 stump speech in which he describes a country where we have...
"...One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America that will do anything to leave its children a better life, another America that never has to do a thing because its children are already set for life."
In fact, I have often suggested that conversations like this from the '08 Edwards campaign forced both the Obama and Clinton '08 campaigns farther to the left than they would have been otherwise--and I would further suggest that the effort to "grab" Edwards voters after he dropped out led Obama to say things about the reforms that he wishes he could walk away from now. In addition to operating the campaign's web presence, the Edwards folks also provided the Internet "organizing ground" for OneCorps, which was intended to be a way for supporters and friends to do "politically agnostic" good works for the public good. Sadly, as the Edwards campaign wound down, so did much of the inertia of OneCorps. And so has much of the interest in doing something about those "Two Americas." And that's what I want you, John Edwards, to come back and do something about. Here's the thing, John: while you might see your personal troubles as something that keeps you from being a public figure, I don't. I see what's happened to you as liberating. You aren't running for anything anymore, and you have Elizabeth's legacy to advance--and you no longer have to suck up to the Paul Begalias and Ed Rendells and Donna Braziles of the Democratic Party... and you damn sure don't have to suck up to any Republican legislative leaders or the Doug Feith crowd to advance an agenda in a lame-duck session. You are free, Mr. Edwards, and if you want to start doing some work to help broke people get organized again, or if you want to start asking hard questions about why banks and billionaires need subsidies and why those who are neither have to cover the bills...or if you want to do something that combines the civility aspect of "No Labels" with the energy of OneCorps and the policy direction of "Two Americas"...this is your chance. In fact, by having no interest whatsoever in running for office, you may actually be in the best political situation of your life: you have a chance to be one of the few truly "honest brokers" in American politics, you have a chance to do truly good work, at a time when America truly needs the help, and you have the chance to do it in a way that bypasses both political establishments and taps directly into the giant well of "unrepresented" that is out there in every city and town in the nation. There are millions of Americans who want to see jobs coming back to this country, who are afraid that Social Security is looking more and more like a giant pot of money to be sold to the highest bidder, and who are worried that their kids won't be able to do better in life than they did--and you are now in a position to do them a lot of good by getting out there and telling some hard truths about who's winning and who's losing--even when it's Democrats who are having to endure some of the truth telling. Beyond that, you can help to advance a legacy that I know means more to you than you could ever say--and it would give you and the kids a chance to honor someone that I know you miss more than you could ever say. Look, I know you screwed up...badly...but this is America, the land of the second chance--and if you approach this as a chance to perform a public service, and ignore all the "professional" politicking that will pop up as we move forward, you could do something truly great. Hold our politicians accountable. Demand action on "Two Americas." Use your insight to point out exactly how the hustle is going down--and, once again, be the voice that stands up for those who want more from this country than just getting trickled on. This is your chance to do right by someone you cared very much for, and a chance to do right by an entire nation, both at the same time--and if I were you, I might just make this my New Year's resolution.

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Interesting. Putting aside the problems with conventional Lib-Dem politics or even the fantasy of the "middle class," I'm glad we're at least talking about Edwards' politics, which so many were quick to write off in all the moralising. And I think it's worth noting that his "Two Americas" speech speaks to a different reality than the fantasy conjured by Obama (I was one of the few completely unimpressed by his 2004 DNC speech where he insisted on "one America.")

But I'm less sure that this is or needs to be true:
"and it would give you and the kids a chance to honor someone that I know you miss more than you could ever say." Rather than speculate on a relationship about which we know little, perhaps we should just let go of the grand narrative about the enduring love of the Edwards when, in fact, the truth is often that such situations usually speak to irreconcilable differences.

I'd say, rather, let those who support Edwards - or any other candidate - do so without flinching at his personal life. Asking him to restart a career with the enormous burden of somehow having to recompense for behaviour which we have no business condemning is dooming him from the start. That's a lesson worth carrying forth for politics, period.

a couple words about redemption: i wouldn't want to project too much of myself onto him, but it's hard to imagine that you could live for so long, and go through so much, with someone who died relatively young, and not feel a ton of loss about the whole thing--and considering how it all turned out, it would not surprise me if he has a personal interest in personal redemption, if only for the purpose of finding a bit of peace of mind.

beyond that, he might actually want to rehabilitate his career and personal image; here's a bit of a roadmap.

and with all respect, despite how you perceive how the public should react, there is a big wellspring of resentment that he would have to overcome if he wanted to return to advocacy, and good deeds are a good way to accomplish that.

now some of the reason i'm making this more personal than i might otherwise is because the '08 edwards "community" was rather small at first, and i think we all feel a more personal connection to this guy than we might otherwise.

Oh, of course, I'm not denying that people feel that kind of resentment towards him - I'm just pointing out that our public discourse needs to change. But, yes, given where American politics is right now, especially in matters of infidelity (on which we are unwilling to expose our own hypocrisy and ambivalence, hence our rush to judgment, IMHO), he has his work cut out for him. I think that's unfortunate - we lose our more interesting politicians in this rush to demand moral perfection from them.

i couldn't agree with you more here, and the way i like to present it to folks is to tell them that "jesus ain't running", which is my way of saying perfect people don't exist, especially as political candidates.