March 16, 2003 · Lessig
I saw John Edwards speak yesterday at a small party thrown by a friend. He was extraordinary. It was just a simple stump speech — a bit long, and a bit rambling. But it was moving in a way I have never before seen in a politician.
No doubt the stage for this candidate is set to be moving: son of a mill-worker, first kid to go to college, from a small town (800 people), a life before the Senate persuading juries about injustices. (The anti-Bush in every bit of his personal history.) And no doubt every candidate speaks of “ideals and principles” and about how he or she sees them to be the source of truth.
But there was something different in this candidate this time. There was nothing crafted or rhetorical: it was simple and direct. And yet he seemed to ache when talking about the things he thought wrong. He spoke of the hatred that bad diplomacy is building around the world, and the crowd was pin-drop-silent as he reminded them of growing up as a nation thought the hero of the world. He spoke of civil rights — an easy topic in San Francisco — but he described speaking of civil rights, and his support for affirmative action, in town halls in North Carolina. And most importantly, he has a knack for understanding how to confront hard questions directly: Someone asked him whether he would go into Iraq without a second resolution, and he understood that here in San Francisco, peace capital of the Americas, the “correct” answer is “no”. But he looked straight into the eyes of the questioner and said he would: he believed Bush had totally fumbled the lead up to this war, and he was sickened by how much we had lost in the build up to this war, but he believed the Iraqi president had to go.
He was asked what were the three top issues, and, almost bored with the question, he rattled of the two top issues that his advisors had fed him (no doubt as fed to them by the polls). But much more interesting were the themes that seemed to move his passion. Top among these was the “think about all we have have lost” theme. Again and again he came back to this idea, each time more moving. He described the battle over federal judges; the battle over the Clean Air Act; the budget and tax cuts; the loss of respect and authority in the world. This was a group primed to believe that the Bush administration had been a disaster. But Edwards did something in that small group I can’t yet understand. He made that group feel what we had before simply believed.
I’ve spent too many years believing that “ideals and principles” were the province of courts, and that politicians were hopeless. At least the first half of that was silly. And while I know I am in rebound mode just now, I still can’t help but think that this candidate is something different. If his advisors let him speak like this generally, if he resists their constant efforts to focus him on the bland and safe, then this candidate will make this race seem very different.
One note of blog relevance: He spent a long time talking about the failure of the press to make the differences and subtleties of positions clear. Everything for the press was black and white; there was no effort to convey the positions in between. Here is one clear role for weblogs in this election: to fill out the detail. A second might be even more important: who was a candidate talking to; and what did he say that he knew they didn’t want to hear. Edwards says he talks about affirmative action and civil rights in town hall meetings in North Carolina. I believe him, but it would be great to read that in this space. I saw him support war — ultimately, and with important qualifications, and with strong criticism of the cowboy president — in an audience that disagreed. That is a measure of something good in a man who could well prove to be great.