Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards launched his bid for the White House last December in New Orleans' devastated Ninth Ward. Since then, the former North Carolina senator has pinned his campaign largely on ending poverty in America. This weekend, Edwards returns to New Orleans, where he will begin a 12-city tour through poor America. The journey mirrors the famous 1968 tour of impoverished areas by then-senator and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy.
Renee Montagne spoke with Edwards on the eve of his trip.
What do you think Robert Kennedy's tour accomplished that you can accomplish now by retracing some of his steps?
Well, the goal of this is to take time off from a presidential campaign and to shine a light on the poverty that exists in this country. The idea is that we want people to see what's happening and to focus on the solutions. I have my own ideas about what needs to be done, but in addition to that, there are things being done in the cities and communities that we'll be going to that are creative.
You say "taking time off from the presidential campaign." But isn't this part of the presidential campaign?
Well, I think the campaign — because of the bully pulpit that any serious presidential candidate has — gives you an opportunity to shine a light on the things you care most about. And I want to take advantage of that opportunity to address this issue.
The last Democrat elected president — Bill Clinton — he won in part because he promised to reform the welfare system while emphasizing very much personal responsibility. How does that fit into what you're doing?
First of all, we expect anyone who's capable of working to work, and we should hold them accountable for that. But we want the work to be adequate and their pay to be adequate to support their families. The way I think about responsibility is that I think we, as a nation, have a responsibility to our fellow citizens. And when we meet that responsibility, we can seriously address issues — like at least 37 million people who live in poverty in this country. I do think there are important societal, cultural components that have to be addressed. When young women, 13-14 years old, are having their second or third child and they're living in poverty, the odds are overwhelming that their children will grow up in poverty. We have to get at those causes, in addition to the financial piece of the puzzle.
Now, you're beginning this tour in New Orleans. This city is still struggling to come back. Can you really make people care about fighting poverty when it appears that Katrina and its aftermath didn't?
Now, I would disagree with that analysis, although that's what a lot of people think. I think that what we saw in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, particularly in New Orleans, was an outpouring from the American people to help their fellow Americans who were struggling and suffering and give them a chance. But what happens is, when there's no national leadership on these issues and time passes, people go back to their lives. They have busy lives. And that's the reason shining a light on this issue is so important — because with national leadership, the will is there, the desire is there. It just has to be tapped into.
Let me just put this to you, though. When you stake out the high ground on an issue like poverty, you open yourself up to accusations of hypocrisy. In this case, you've been criticized for living in an expensive mansion, for getting a very expensive $400 haircut, working for a hedge fund, and possibly more seriously — using monies from one of your foundations to raise awareness about poverty — using that money to effectively stay on the campaign trail. How do you answer those criticisms?
Anytime you're in public life, you're going to be criticized for what you do. But if you look at the arc of my life and what I've spent my time doing — working with Urban Ministries, a faith-based group that helps the poorest of the poor. Before I ever ran for any political office or was involved in politics, I helped organize thousands of workers into unions. Elizabeth and I started a college program for low-income kids to be able to go to college who were willing to work while they were in school. I'm very proud of what I've spent my life doing, and I'll do it as long as I'm breathing, whether I'm involved in politics or not.
Voters ranked the war in Iraq at the top of their list of concerns right now. Why make fighting poverty a central theme of your campaign?
Well, there's a difference between looking at a poll to see what voters care about and only talking about those issues and leading.
I realize this is an ongoing issue — poverty in America — but it isn't just a poll with the Iraq war. It's a hugely momentous feeling across the country. It's a big issue for many, many people.
As it is for me. It's a huge issue for America, it's a huge issue for the world. I wasn't for a second downgrading the importance of the war in Iraq and ending the war in Iraq. My point was that you can't just focus on one issue. The person who's running for president of the United States has to focus on the things that they believe should be the priorities of America. The war in Iraq is certainly at the top of the list. So is universal healthcare and addressing what I think is a crisis in climate change and millions of people who live in poverty. Because New Orleans has faded from some people's memory, and because I believe it's important for America to focus on this issue, I just want to make sure that this is one of the things that we, as a nation, are addressing.
The moment the 2004 Democratic ticket of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards went down to defeat, Edwards began his second bid for the presidency.
Edwards, now the former senator from North Carolina, has spent much of the intervening years in Iowa, where he finished second to Kerry in the '04 caucuses, and where he has built a strong organization.
He has made a determined effort to repudiate (and apologize for) his 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war, drawing a contrast with Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, who has refused to call her vote for war a "mistake." He has also been a strong and persistent critic against the Bush administration on its conduct of the war.
As they did in 2004, Edwards' supporters point out that as a Southerner, Edwards can make inroads in a region that produced the last three Democratic presidents (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton). But in 2004, Edwards' presence on the Democratic ticket did not help it carry a single Southern state, including his own. And during the primaries, he won just a single contest, that of his birth state of South Carolina.
A charming campaigner with a strong populist streak, Edwards has picked up on the themes he focused on last time: ending poverty, guaranteeing health care for all Americans and improving the environment. In fact, he announced his candidacy in New Orleans. The locale highlighted what Edwards sees as the greatest domestic failure of the Bush administration — its failed response to Hurricane Katrina — and helped make the point that he will not forget those left behind.
Edwards, who has been running third in the national polls for quite some time — trailing Clinton and Obama — now finds himself in the same position in Iowa, where he has invested nearly all of his time and money since the conclusion of his 2004 campaign for vice president. But by placing most, if not all, of his campaign's marbles in the Hawkeye State, a defeat there could end his viability as a serious candidate. A win in Iowa, of course, could reverberate several days later in the caucus in Nevada, where organized labor plays a major role, and a week later in South Carolina, where Edwards retains strong support.
When Edwards declared his candidacy for this presidential election cycle, he said the only thing that would hold him back was his wife's health. Elizabeth Edwards discovered she had breast cancer in October 2004, in the final weeks of Edwards' vice presidential campaign. Since then, she has undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and was thought to be recovering.
On March 22, John and Elizabeth Edwards held a news conference in Chapel Hill, N.C., announcing that her cancer has returned, this time in the bone. The news was that Elizabeth's cancer was not curable, but it was treatable. Despite rumors that Edwards would drop out of the race, or suspend his campaign, he announced he would continue.
"The campaign goes on," he said. "The campaign goes on strongly."
Edwards was a hugely successful trial lawyer when he took on and beat Sen Lauch Faircloth (R) in 1998, in his first run for public office. Two years later, Edwards found himself on Al Gore's short list of potential vice presidential running mates. When he ran for president in 2004, Edwards gave up on a re-election bid to the Senate; at the time, his chances of winning a second term in office were seen as no better than even.