GUY RAZ, host:
It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Neal Conan is away. I'm Guy Raz. Former presidential candidate John Edwards wants to cut poverty in America by half over the next 10 years, but can he do it without a national political platform? John Edwards is our guest this hour. Did you vote for him? And why? And are the issues he raised still being addressed? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. John Edwards, welcome to the program.
Former Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina): Thanks for having me.
RAZ: I want to begin by asking you about Senator Jesse Helms, of course, who died this past week. How do you assess his legacy?
Sen. EDWARDS: Complicated. He was, in so many ways, represented the opposite of what I believe, and what I think the country needed, and needs today. We had - there was a point at which when we both served in the Senate from North Carolina, we were identified as the states - the state with the U.S. senators who had the most diametrically opposed voting records. So, we obviously had huge, huge differences on big issues. Having said that, he could be very kind and generous in a personal way, and I saw that myself in my own family.
RAZ: So, a complicated legacy, of course.
Sen. EDWARDS: No doubt complicated, certainly doesn't represent what I think America needs.
RAZ: Yesterday, Senator Edwards, Virginia Senator Jim Webb ruled out accepting an offer to run on the Democratic ticket with Barack Obama. Now, it's an open secret that you are on the short list. If you were asked, would you accept your party's vice-presidential nomination?
Sen. EDWARDS: I'm glad to hear that's an open secret, because I didn't know it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. EDWARDS: I - my answer to that is, I've run for vice president, I've run for president twice, I would do anything that I felt I could do to serve this country. But I think it's a huge presumption, from me or anybody else, to suggest what Senator Obama may decide. To answer your question directly, I don't expect to be asked, have no expectation about it at all. I will - anything that Senator Obama asks me to do, including this, including campaigning for him, I intend to do, because I'm - what I'm going to do, I intend to take seriously. Because what I intend to do is everything in my power - use everything in my power to make sure that he's the next president.
RAZ: So, you are prepared, perhaps, to accept that or perhaps a cabinet position in a possible Obama administration?
Sen. EDWARDS: I'm prepared to seriously consider anything, anything he asks me to do for our country.
RAZ: John Edwards, when you dropped out of the presidential race in January you said, and I quote, "It's hard to speak out for change when you feel your voice is not being heard." Now, you are trying to raise the profile of poverty in America. Can you do that being out of government?
Sen. EDWARDS: Oh, sure you can. I don't want to use him as an example for me, because he's risen to such lofty heights, but Al Gore's a wonderful example of what's possible when you're not in government. I mean, here's a man who believed deeply in a cause, doing something about climate change. He was not in government. He won the Academy Award, the Nobel Prize, and is the voice, the most powerful voice in the world today, on doing something about climate change.
So, I think he's a living, breathing example for what's possible. You know, whether I could ever get to that place in trying to do something about poverty, both in America and globally, would be an extremely hard thing for me to do. But I - what's more important than me and my voice is making sure we actually address this huge moral issue.
RAZ: Our guest is former senator and presidential nominee - candidate, rather, John Edwards. He's in the studio with us here. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our blog that's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Did you vote for John Edwards? And why? And what was it about his ideas that appealed to you? And do you find that the candidates are now addressing some of those ideas?
John Edwards, how do you keep the issues you care deeply about, healthcare, for example, poverty, obviously, economic inequality, how do you keep that on the radar screen of someone like Barack Obama during the campaign?
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, you know, I'm lucky and blessed that I do have a national voice. People generally know who I am from my presidential campaigns and my vice-presidential run. And so, the result of that, I can usually get heard on shows like yours. So, I have a platform that allows me to speak to the country about these issues. As specifically as to Senator Obama, I've talked to him many times now about the economic inequality, about doing something about poverty in America, doing something about poverty globally.
And the last thing he needs from me is for me to talk to him about this. He already knows it. He knows what a big issue it is. He cares about it deeply. He has his entire life, starting with his community organizing in Chicago. So, what I want to do is make sure that I continue to be out there fighting every day, with every fiber of my being, for what is the central call in my life, which is doing something about this inequality and economic injustice.
RAZ: Senator Edwards, what do you think it was that Barack Obama managed to tap into that you simply couldn't connect with?
Sen. EDWARDS: We both believe deeply in change. I think it was central to both our campaigns. I think that he was able to stir young people in a way that others did not. I think he was able to speak to a group of Americans who had not voted, not just young people, but Americans who had not voted in a long period of time, and who were generally cynical about politics, and I think convinced people that the system is broken, and it needs to be fixed and made to work for everybody. And he had an enormous amount of passionate energy around his campaign as a result.
RAZ: Now, you've recently taken over a program that intends to cut poverty by half over the next 10 years. That's a pretty lofty goal. How do you expect to do that?
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, it's called the Half in Ten Campaign. Anybody who's interested in helping us with it can go to halfinten.org, and join this campaign. You and your friends, we're looking for grassroots support, looking for all the help we can get in this effort. So, the answer to - that's part of the answer to your question. We need to mobilize and energize both Americans who are interested in this issue, secondly, all the extraordinary groups of organizations who've been working on this for decades, who care deeply about it, grassroots organizations, religious organizations, all kinds of groups who care about this issue.
And then we have to motivate politicians to do something about this. You know, one of the commitments I got from Senator Obama was - when I withdrew from the race, was a commitment to make poverty central to his campaign, and central to his presidency - the ending of poverty central to his campaign, and his presidency, to spend time campaigning on this issue in the general election, and to do some other very specific things. So, I think you just - you put pressure on political leaders, and you motivate the country.
RAZ: Why you think that poverty doesn't - isn't the kind of sexy, political issue like immigration, for example, or the economy? It doesn't seem to resonate with voters in the same way as those other issues.
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, I don't accept that. I understand the theory, but I don't accept it. If you watch the ways Americans responded to the hurricane hitting New Orleans, for example, and the extraordinary poverty that we saw in the Ninth Ward as a result, the American people responded incredibly. The government didn't, but the people did, with volunteering, with contributing, taking families into their homes, and into their communities. I don't think that's an accident, but I think we have a history here. It's gone on for - it's been 40 years since we've had a serious, sustained effort to end poverty in this country. And a lot of good things have been done, and we need to recognize those good things. And there were a number of mistakes made, and we need to recognize those mistakes.
So, the starting place - I think there is, deeply embedded within the American people, a goodness and a will among most Americans to do something about this. What we have to do is motivate them. There needs to be sustained national leadership. And third, there has to be a set of policy proposals, simple things like raising the minimum wage, expansion of the earned-income tax credit, making quality child care available, strengthen the rights of unions to organize, a whole group of things that will help lift people out of poverty that make sense to voters.
RAZ: OK, let's take a caller. John is on the line with us from Chicago. John, welcome to the show.
JOHN (Caller): Hello?
RAZ: Hi, John. Welcome. You're on the air.
JOHN: Hi. Yeah, I had the pleasure of working for Senator Edwards out in Iowa. Drove out from Chicago and spent a couple of days, met the senator twice. I'm a teacher and I'm a powerful supporter of unions. And I'm very - and I think that's the way to tackle poverty, the first and foremost way to tackle poverty. And I'm a little concerned about both Hillary Clinton and Senator Obama's commitments to strong unions and scrutinizing these free-trade agreements.
I know Mark Penn had clients down in Latin America, that it was a conflict of interest for him, and I know - I seem to recall Obama's people were strategizing with some Canadian folks about their take on some of these agreements. And I want to know how Senator Edwards is going to make sure that these strong union planks are in the platform. I need him - as someone who voted for him, I want him fighting and I want to know how the (unintelligible) are going to be in there.
RAZ: John Edwards?
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, first of all, I don't think there's a lot of work to do with Senator Obama on this issue. He cares as deeply about this as I do. He's committed. If you listen to him, his language is very similar to mine about the problems with our trade policy over the last decade plus. He understands it. He understands what needs to change about the way we engage the rest of the world on trade. He understands the loss of American jobs. He's seen it up close.
In fact ,he tells the story about some of his original organizing in Chicago being the result of factories closing in Chicago and people losing their jobs. So, I think this is something he takes very personally. And I think the issue of organizing, he's been involved in union organizing campaigns in his life before he was ever a politician. So, I really - I intend to continue to speak out on these causes, because they're deep and personal to me. And I think that if you look at the history, the archive of economic inequality in America, one of the most powerful anti-poverty movements is the union movement and the organized labor movement.
So, I think it's central to being successful. We do need a president who explains to America the importance of union organizing, not just for the unions, but for all of us, because it strengthens the middle class. It grows the middle class. It lifts people out of poverty. And that strengthening and growing of the middle class creates the kind of broad foundation that allows for long-term, sustainable, economic growth.
RAZ: John, thanks so much for the call. Later on in the program, we're going to read from your letters, and we're going to talk to a man who's trying to put a smiley face on the oil and gas industry. But more with Senator John Edwards in a moment. And we're going to be taking your calls at 800-989-8255. You can also send us email. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Guy Raz. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: This is Talk of the Nation. I am Guy Raz in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. In a few minutes, we'll be joined by the man who has perhaps the toughest job in Washington, the public face of the oil and gas industry, and he's about to take that job up in the fall. Right now, John Edwards is our guest. The former Democratic senator from North Carolina and candidate for president just announced a new campaign to cut poverty in half over the next 10 years. We're talking about his plan and about presidential politics and about life after the campaigns.
If you have questions for John Edwards about his future in and out of politics, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Again, 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And John Edwards, I want to ask you to be a political consultant for a moment, a strategist, if you will. In 2004, white males voted for the Bush-Cheney ticket by a margin of 25 percentage points over Kerry-Edwards. Now, since 1960, the Democratic Party's share of white, male voters has dropped steadily. Do the Democrats have a white-male-voter problem?
Sen. EDWARDS: No. What we have is a responsibility to - particularly in this environment, with all the economic struggles that all Americans are going through, including white males, white, male workers in America, to make the case about these guys, the Republicans, having a long time to be able to do the things that they wanted to do and that they're not working. They've been a disaster. And I think we have a powerful opportunity available to us to reverse this trend that you're describing, and I think we just need to grasp that opportunity.
RAZ: And you lost, of course, in your home state of North Carolina in 2004. Do you think that state is in play this year for Barack Obama?
Sen. EDWARDS: I know it is. I think that it's still a tough fight, but I think Virginia's totally winnable. I'm thinking about the states just south of D.C. Virginia's totally winnable. North Carolina is a case - a state that we could clearly win for a variety of reasons, because, you know, we've had huge population growth, particularly in the Research Triangle, which is a heavy Democratic stronghold. I think there'll be a large turnout of African-American voters, as was exhibited in the Democratic primary in North Carolina by Senator Obama and his campaign. So, I think there's a huge opportunity available to us in North Carolina. Yeah, I think we can win.
RAZ: Tanya is on the line with us from Sacramento, California. Tanya, welcome to the show.
TANYA (Caller): Thank you. I voted for John Edwards. And I'm a social worker, and right now, I've been working with kids in foster care for the last seven, eight years. And I know that you have this organization and I'm wondering if, you know, we're - here in California, they're talking about cutting Medi-Cal, which is like Medicaid for the rest of the country, this coming budget. And I'm wondering if your organization is involved in this.
I'm also concerned about how much energy - how much emphasis do you really think Obama is going to put on the concern of the poor? I see foster kids also as being part of the poor. They get leftovers in so many ways, and this is another cut that's going to affect trying to find medical services for these kids. And there are so many other things that they don't - you know, they get the leftovers, and I'm just wondering if your organization has any impact on that and what's going on here in California, and if you see Obama and his campaign working towards fighting things like this?
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, let me, first of all, thank you for your support and your vote, because by the time of the California primary, I had already withdrawn from the race. So, that means you're truly committed.
TANYA: I know, but I wanted to vote anyway.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. EDWARDS: Bless you. Thank you for that. It's a huge mistake for us to be cutting funding for Medicaid, Medi-Cal, as it is in California, for a whole variety of reasons. I mean, we have all these kids out there who need access to decent healthcare. And in many cases, Medicaid is the only vehicle available for that healthcare. And what you see happening is, in times of economic stress, stress on state budgets and on the federal budget, you see the social safety net being cut at really at the time that it's most needed. And our responsibility as a country is to ensure that we don't, in times of stress, take away the very tools that allow people to survive.
And so I've - as to Senator Obama, I've talked in great depth with him about this. I really mean it. I hope people will hear what I'm saying, particularly people who supported me. This guy does not have to be pushed by me. He cares deeply about these issues. He and I will be working in tandem to speak to the American people about this, because he cares about it, and he will lead on it. And he's shown his leadership over the entire - his entire life. So, I - basically, I see my role in this and my responsibility as to continue to lead the movement against economic inequality, whether it's single moms, foster children, all of the groups who are struggling in this country, and to be their voice, because they don't have a voice if we don't have somebody speaking for them at the national level.
And I think we actually are blessed in this time in 2008. I'm lucky to get the opportunity to be able to be heard around the country about this issue. Senator Obama will - has and will continue to speak out on these economic-inequality issues. I think we have a wonderful, wonderful opportunity, and I am convinced that when, and not if, Barack Obama is elected president, that you're going to see the first serious effort to do something about the economically disadvantaged in America in the last 40 years.
RAZ: Tanya, thanks so much for the call.
TANYA: Thank you.
RAZ: I want to read an email written to you, Senator Edwards, from Beth in Charlotte, North Carolina. She writes, I'm from North Carolina and familiar with you and how you made your millions. My husband is a doctor who was born when his parents lived in a garage. Also made it out of poverty by hard work. How do you plan to eliminate poverty without wealth distribution, taxing those who've worked hard to get where they are and don't shelter in common, end up losing almost half of our income to taxes? Where is the responsibility of the poor to take advantage of things like free education?
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, it sounds like I just might have a fundamental disagreement with her. What - let me start with simple things. I come from a background that she's describing for her husband, you know? My family didn't have anything. My father, as everyone knows, has worked, because I said it every time I gave speech for five years, was a millworker and didn't get a chance to go to college, and I'm very proud of my father. And I've been able to be incredibly successful in America, but that's because the opportunities of America were available to me.
And what's happened is that we've had a whole set of policy ideas, including our tax system, that have greatly advantaged those who need the advantages the least. Listen, I'm not against people doing well in America. I'm totally for it. You know, otherwise I'd be against myself. What her husband has done? He deserves to be applauded for it. People who've worked hard and been extremely successful? We should lift them up and use them as examples for our kids and for those who are trying to attain the same level of success.
But what I want to do is I want to see some of those barriers knocked down, whether it's access to college, access to quality healthcare, access to decent housing, all those things. And I don't think we need to continue to have continuation or new tax cuts for people who are the strongest financially, the richest people in the country. I think, instead, what we ought to do is give up what I talked about earlier. I've talked about - it sounds a little wonky, but expansion of the earned-income tax credit. Basically, that's a refundable tax credit for people who work full time who are working for a living.
RAZ: But how do you - how do you do that, John Edwards, as a private citizen? I mean, how do you do that? You're not in the Senate. You're not introducing legislation. I mean, how can you practically make that happen?
Sen. EDWARDS: By getting out and fighting with my heart and soul for it, and speaking out on shows like yours, so that millions of people hear how important this is. They understand that somebody cares about it. They understand that in this presidential election, Barack Obama cares about it, so the election matters. I mean, it's a combination of mobilizing grassroots efforts, touching the soul of America about something that is a deep, moral issue that exists in this country.
RAZ: But you have been out of government now for four years. If you do not accept a position, if Barack Obama's elected president and you do not accept a position either on his cabinet or as his vice president, you'll be out of government for another four years. Won't that be a disadvantage to you?
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, I guess you could ask that. I would ask the question, Al Gore has been out of government for eight years, and what effect has he had on what's happening on climate change and global warming? And just - I think it depends on how deeply you're committed to it. I mean, I know his heart and soul and every fiber of his being is in this issue. I'm in exactly the same place when it comes to poverty, both in America and globally.
And I absolutely believe that if you're committed to it, if you have - if you're lucky enough, and I am lucky, to be able to be in a position to be heard, that you can put pressure on political leaders, number one. And number two, you can actually help educate the American people, who can also get engaged and put pressure on political leaders. This is how you bring about change.
RAZ: David is on the line with us from Kenosha, Wisconsin. David, welcome.
DAVID (Caller): Hi, how are you? Senator Edwards, one of the things that concerns me is Barack Obama is trying to forward President Bush's faith-based programs. I'm concerned with that because I haven't really seen that much effort, and I don't really see a whole lot of specifics in his program, and I just look at the government as not being the solution. I agree with the faith-based thing, but how do we get the corporations that manufacturer food in this country to start providing more and more to our food pantries and to our church-based organizations, so that the poverty - that the poor people can actually access that food and, you know, at least be well fed? And that goes a long way towards the rest of what you've been talking about.
Sen. EDWARDS: Honestly, I had a little trouble following some of that. I think if I understand what you're asking - I couldn't tell if you were against or for Senator Obama's faith-based proposal.
DAVID: I'm for it. I just want to hear more specifics.
Sen. EDWARDS: OK, I've got you. You know, if you're me, and you're - as I have been for the last several years, before - including before I was running for president in 2008, if you've been traveling all over the country and going to, you know, literally hundreds of places where effort is being made to help poor families, an enormous part of that effort is being executed by faith-based groups. And the reality of it is, and I think this is what Barack is saying, the reality of it is that that is the mechanism by which much of the work is being done to help poor families, and to get them food, a decent place to live, to help them find good employment, et cetera.
Now, there is a natural uneasiness, particularly among Democrats, but I think among a lot of Americans, about the separation of church and state and the danger of crossing that line in this area. What you have - the only thing I would say to everyone in America is understand there are two polar opposites in George Bush and Barack Obama. Barack Obama is trying to help people, and he will never permit - and you can take this to the bank, he will never permit those lines to be crossed. He will never allow any recipient, and he said this in his speech, any recipient of federal money to discriminate, to in any way punish, those who are of a different faith belief. He understands very well the Constitution of the United States, the bedrock of this democracy, and the critical importance of the separation of church and state.
RAZ: Thank you, David, for the call. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Senator Edwards, you put yourself out there as a presidential candidate. You put your family out there. You expose your entire life to the media. You're followed around 24 hours, seven days a week. And then it evaporates. How do you cope with that on a personal level? What's that like?
Sen. EDWARDS: Well, it's a big change. I mean, it's - you know, I went from having several hundred people working for me on the campaign to having just a very small number who were helping us day to day. And we continue to get, you know, hundreds of requests constantly to come speak at this or help with this organization, et cetera. So let me just put this in simple terms. It is a dramatic change...
RAZ: Is it hard to deal with?
Sen. EDWARDS: No question about that. It's just is it hard to deal with. It's something you have to adjust to, but it's not as dramatic as some of the other things that I've been through in my life. It's with my - as most people know, we lost a child 12 years ago, Elizabeth and I did. Elizabeth has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her cancer came back.
RAZ: And she'll be on the show tomorrow.
Sen. EDWARDS: Oh, I didn't know that. Well, that's terrific. Well, in any event, I've had much more important things happen in my life than my not being successful in a political campaign.
RAZ: Let's get one more call before we wrap up. Robert is on the line with us from Germany, from a military base there. Welcome, Robert.
ROBERT: Yes, thank you for taking my call. I am serving with the field army, to change the topic rather quick. As an influential person, and I know you have constant contact with Senator Obama, I'm over here, supporting the community I work in. We're supporting the war effort. I - however, when I just recently went back to the U.S., I feel that many people are disconnected with actually what's going on. And one of the thoughts I had is what affects people most in America is their paycheck.
And I was concerned that if Senator Obama was to continue this war, or he's trying to put an end to it, I think the American people would be more connected if they saw a payroll deduction directly proportional to what's going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I think people would then - would be more - let me say, their eyes would be open as they saw their payroll deductions increase because of what's going on. I feel like only a few percentile of our population is actually paying the high price for what's going on in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and I'd like to take your comments off the air.
RAZ: Thanks, Robert, for that call. And Senator Edwards, in the brief moments we have remaining, could you briefly respond to that?
Sen. EDWARDS: Yeah, I think it's a very interesting idea. I actually believe, though, that most Americans understand the extraordinarily important difference between Senator McCain and Senator Obama on the war. You know, Senator McCain will continue the war. He said maybe have American troops there for up to 100 years. Senator Obama will end this war. I think he'll do it in a responsible way.
And I think most Americans already understand that there is a direct connection between extraordinary amounts of money that are being spent on this war every single day, and even more importantly, the lives that are being lost and put at risk, and what needs to be done here in America and other parts of the world. I mean, we - it's very hard to have universal healthcare, to address these issues, these economic issues, that exist at home with things like the mortgage crisis, when we're continuing to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into this war in Iraq. The war needs to be ended.
RAZ: John Edwards is a former senator from North Carolina and, of course, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. He's now the national chair of Half in Ten: From Poverty to Prosperity, and he joined us from the studios at member station WETA in Arlington, Virginia. John Edwards, thanks for your time.
Sen. EDWARDS: Thank you for having me.
RAZ: Up next, putting the best face on the oil and gas industry. I'm Guy Raz. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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