RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
John Edwards has pinned his presidential hopes largely on promising to end poverty in America.
His bid for the White House began in New Orleans in the devastated Ninth Ward. He returned to New Orleans this weekend. It's where he begins a tour through poor America, a tour that mirrors a famous trip by Robert F. Kennedy through Appalachia in 1968.
Then-Senator Kennedy told one crowd at a time he'd just left a family with six children that, he said, has milk one day each month. That was in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, where John Edwards ends his journey. We reached the candidate in Detroit.
Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: You know, as I've just said, Robert Kennedy went on a similar trip during his campaign for president. What do you think his tour accomplished that you can accomplish now by retracing some of his steps?
Mr. EDWARDS: 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. And the idea is we want people, number one, to see what's happening, and number two, to focus on the solutions.
I have some of 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.
MONTAGNE: Well, let me get to some specifics. But you say taking time off the presidential campaign - isn't this part, really, of the presidential campaign?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, I think the presidential 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.
MONTAGNE: 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?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, I think we all have a - first of all, I think 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, 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 37 million, at least, people who live in poverty in this country.
I do think there are important societal, cultural components that have to be addressed. You know, when young women, 13, 14 years old, are having their second or third child and they're living in poverty, the odds are overwhelming their children will grow up in poverty. We have to get at those causes, in addition to the financial piece of the puzzle.
MONTAGNE: Now, you're beginning this tour, as we said, in New Orleans. The 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?
Mr. EDWARDS: No, I think 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 that shining a light on this issue is so important, because with national leadership, the - the will is there. The desire is there. But it has to be tapped into.
MONTAGNE: 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.
And 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; 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?
Mr. EDWARDS: Anytime you're in public life you're going to be criticized for what you do. If you look at the arc of my life and what I've spent my time doing - working for Urban - with Urban Ministries, which is a faith-based group that helps the poorest of the poor.
Before I ever ran for any political office or was involved in politics, helping organize workers, 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 when 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.
MONTAGNE: Just finally, voters ranked the war in Iraq at the top of their list of concerns right now.
Mr. EDWARDS: Yup.
MONTAGNE: Why make fighting poverty a central theme of your campaign?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, there's a difference between looking at a poll to see what voters care about and only talking about those issues and leading, and trying to...
MONTAGNE: Well, let me - I realize this is an ongoing issue - poverty in America - but it isn't just a poll with the Iraq war. It is a hugely momentous feeling across the country. It's not just a poll; it's a big issue for many, many, many people.
Mr. EDWARDS: 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, universal health care; so is addressing that what I think is a crisis in climate change, and including millions of people who live in poverty.
And 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 among the things that we as a nation are addressing.
MONTAGNE: John Edwards is a Democratic candidate for president. Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. EDWARDS: Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: And you can hear John Edwards give details of his anti-poverty plan at npr.org.
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