John Edwards Talks Issues, Ann Coulter In a wide-ranging interview, presidential hopeful John Edwards and NPR's Tony Cox go one-on-one about the Supreme Court, his current fundraising struggles and dirty politics.
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John Edwards Talks Issues, Ann Coulter

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John Edwards Talks Issues, Ann Coulter

John Edwards Talks Issues, Ann Coulter

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TONY COX, host:

NEWS & NOTES has been reaching out to candidates on both sides of the aisle, offering them a chance to explain why African-Americans should trust them with their vote. Senator Joe Biden was the first to take us up on the offer, and he came in to our NPR West studios for a spirited conversation.

Last week, we spoke with Senator Chris Dodd about his efforts to reopen unsolved Civil Rights-era murder cases.

And today, we bring you a conversation I had with former Senator Edwards on the eve of the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling. Tomorrow is a big day for him that marks the end of the second quarter of fundraising. And Senators Clinton and Obama are both expected to pull in twice to three times as much cash as Edwards.

Still, the former trial lawyer has a few aces up his sleeve. For one, he's the only Democratic candidate in the running who hails from the South. Edwards also has the luxury of time. He's been out of the Senate since he lost his bid for the vice presidency alongside John Kerry in 2004. An expert say he has been campaigning for 2008 ever since.

Given tomorrow's deadline, I kicked off the conversation with a money question, specifically his lack of it. But Edwards was quick to point out, money isn't everything.

Mr. EDWARDS: It wasn't my goal to win a fundraising contest. It was my goal to have the money we need for people to hear this message. And all you have - you have to go back no further than 2004, the candidate who raced more than twice as much money as any other candidate did not win the nomination, did not even finished second. So winning the money contest does not win the nomination. So as long as you have enough money to run a serious campaign, and we - we're far exceeding that.

COX: You talked a lot, senator, about two Americas, a phrase that especially resonates with older black Americans because of its connection to the Turner Commission of 1968. It addressed the racial inequities between blacks and whites at the time, which spawned several big city riots. But that's not the two America's that you're talking about, is it? And doesn't the use of that phrase give, perhaps, an impression that isn't really intended?

Mr. EDWARDS: Oh, I can tell you what I mean when I used the term, two Americas. I'm talking about people who are doing extremely well, and basically everybody else. It's the division between - it's not just the haves and have-nots, it's actually the division between very high-income people, people who are doing extremely well in today's economy, and middle-class families and low-income families.

COX: JFK senator was the last Democrat to win the White House who was not, not from the South. But you're the only Southerner among your Democratic rivals. What do you plan to do to win the South back for the Democratic Party?

Mr. EDWARDS: Oh, I think we have a great opportunity in the South due - for multiple reasons. One is that, at least, it appears that some of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are not Southerners. They are from the Northeast, from the far West. And particularly, if I'm the Democratic nominee, I think we have a terrific chance to win lots of Southern states. But equally important is that I understand the culture and the economy in the rural South, which is the place you have to be competitive to be able to win Southern states.

COX: Also speaking of the South, we ran a story this week saying that black college enrollment is up in the south, but the bad news is that that is largely because blacks' share of the population there has dropped. Our black children are not making it to college in part because our inner city schools are failing. So if you could do one thing, Senator, for our urban schools, what would that one thing be?

Mr. EDWARDS: To pay in bonus pay, incentive pay, to attract the highest quality teachers we can to inner city schools. If I can only do one thing, that's what I'd do.

COX: You've already issued a statement today regarding the expected announcement from the Supreme Court regarding segregation. Is it your - it sounded from the statement that we read that was attributed to your campaign that you are concerned about how the court has ruled or is going to rule in this area?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah, I'm very concerned about it. If you look at what's happening with the court, there are many 5-4 decisions, which are moving in the direction of taking away the rights, taking away civil rights, taking away the rights of women, taking away the rights of minorities. And so I think that we have great reason to be concerned.

It's a great indicator, by the way, of how crucial it is for my party to win the White House in 2008 because the next president is going to have huge control over the shape of the U.S. Supreme Court.

COX: One of the other issues on the burner this week coming out of Washington is immigration, of course. Is there a version of the immigration bill that you support, and specifically, what would it be?

Mr. EDWARDS: I think there are three things that have to be in a bill that I could support. One is a better job of protecting our Southern border. Two, is much tougher on employers who knowingly violate the law. And then three, not amnesty, but a path to earn citizenship, but a real path to earn citizenship, not a phony path, one that people can actually, if they learn to speak English, pay a fine, acknowledging they came here illegally, can actually earn American citizenship.

COX: Senator, your wife and family are featured in the latest issue of Vogue magazine, talking about her cancer, your decision to stay in the race, her hitting the campaign trail on your behalf, and the public's mixed reaction to those decisions. Now, her involvement took a nasty turn, as you know, this week, with a very public spat with Anne Coulter. Do those moments, sir, give you pause about what may be in store for you, and especially her, the rest of the way?

Mr. EDWARDS: I'll tell you what I think. I think that, first of all, Elizabeth is a strong, good woman. And she can make her own decision about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Second, this is the call of our lives.

I mean, it's - the biggest calls of my life is ending poverty and helping those who don't have a voice in this country, and my presidential campaign is a great opportunity to do that and help many others who are struggling in America and serving in Iraq.

So, I think we think this is what our lives are about, you know? We could get -we could (unintelligible) in the corner and feel sorry for ourselves. That's not who Elizabeth is, and I hope it's not who I am.

I mean, we want to serve this country at whatever time along we're going to be on this earth, and we think it's going to be a long time, we want to be out there serving and standing up. And on this one issue that you raised about Ann Coulter, I was very proud of Elizabeth, you know?

The hate mongering that some people, including her, engage in, that horrible thing she said, not just about me, but about Senator Obama, Senator Clinton, somebody's got to stand up for these kind of people. And I was proud to do it myself and also to see Elizabeth do it.

COX: What did you say to your wife after this happened?

Mr. EDWARDS: I said any time you want to speak out on an issue like this, you don't need to talk to me. You just do what you did this time, and that's exactly what she always does.

COX: One last thing about Ann Coulter. Do you have any intentions to confront or talk to her personally about this?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah. I - no, I don't have any interest in talking to her. I mean, I grew up with a lot of people - I saw a lot of people when I was growing up like her, you know? But then, back in those days, when I was growing up in the South, the hateful hate-mongering language was mostly about African-Americans.

And I know these kind of people. They play on prejudices and biases and - the whole goal of this is to keep us from talking about the things that mattered in people's lives. And that's the reason you got to stand up to them, so that you could move this conversation back to the war in Iraq and health care and the things that are important.

COX: Two more questions for you, Senator, and we appreciate the time that you have given us. Looking back over your experience having been involved in a presidential campaign before, is there something that you have noticed that you did before that was either a miscalculation or a misstep that you have decided that you are not going to make that same mistake again this time? Would you share it with us what that might be?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, one - you learn a lot of lessons. One is what you see happening with Anne Coulter and Karl Rove and these other people I've nailed, which is when people attack you, and particularly attack you with the kind of venom that they're engaged in, you have to stand up and fight back because you're not fighting for yourself, you're fighting for a cause, for people who need somebody to stand up to them. So that's one thing.

And the second is, I think what America really wants in its president is they want somebody who's strong and has clear convictions and clear ideas about what America needs and who will tell them the truth. I mean, those are the kinds of things that you learn going through a campaign.

COX: Finally, Senator, one last question. You know that moment when you first wake up in the morning and everything you've got to do with the day seems to pin you to the bed. What's that moment like for John Edwards, and what is it that keeps you going?

Mr. EDWARDS: I can tell you what keeps me going, just taking a bath, the people who worked with my father and me, and the mills in the South when I was growing up. I can still see their faces. And if (unintelligible) somebody in the White House doesn't speak for them and stand with them, they don't have a chance. And that's why I'm running for president.

COX: Former senator and current Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. Senator, thank you very much for coming on.

Mr. EDWARDS: Thanks for having me.

COX: Again, NEWS & NOTES is reaching out to presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle to discuss their vision for America's black community.

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