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.

  • fred

    The “correct” answer is correct in SF and globally. When we invade Iraq without UN authority, we will become the rogue of rogues, an unchecked superpower, worse than Rome ever was. Edwards’s humble beginnings have not taught him humility. He shares the same hubris as Bush, if not his stupidity. You can keep him.

  • Lessig

    I agree that invading Iraq is the wrong answer. But I respect people who tell me straight that they believe what I believe is wrong.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Money talks. Whenever I hear about a politician, I’m starting to
    ask which money is talking to him. Hmm, let’s see …

    No PAC money (nominally) … 53.7% self-financing? Of 6 Million dollars?

    Aha, much becomes clear.

    “Edwards’ fund raising a strong suit”

    So, we have here a millionaire trial-lawyer, supported by other
    such millionaire trial-lawyers, and similar. He can afford to
    be “principled”, so far, since it isn’t costing him.

    Not bad. Relatively, not bad at all. We could do much worse.

  • DrFrankLives


    And Professor, rest assured that Johnny does talk about civil rights in town halls in North Carolina. His first stump speech, here in Raleigh, the day after he announced, was a paean to the great Civil Rights leaders in North Carolina history – Julius Chambers, Terry Sanford, the Greensboro Four. He wants to recapture that sense of mission. It’s real for him.

  • KB

    Edwards is the real deal: a progressive who can win, who is realisitic about the global threats facing us, yet understands how Bush has screwed up the diplomacy. Edwards is the only Dem who can beat Bush.

  • Joseph Reagle

    Perhaps you mean that the middle gournd is found by reading many blogs, or that blogs are good for finding considered points of view?
    03.03.18.tu | The Blog Swagger

  • JB Armstrong

    I am convinced that Dean can win. And besides, this upcoming election will be more about Bush losing, than any Dem winning.
    What differentiates Dean from all the others, is that not only is he against the direction that Bush is taking this nation, he wants to take it in an entirely different direction, and this is clear.
    This is good, we have a clear division, and will see who will rally the troops. This is an upcoming war in 2004 for the Presidency, and I want the man up there who is hungry for the fight.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, right…there’s a candidate named John Edwards.

    …was I the only one that thought Larry had given in to that new age psychic guy who claims he can talk to dead people?

  • Luke Francl

    Speaking of political blogs, Dean has become the first presidential candidate with an official blog:

    Larry, I know you’re leaning towards Edwards. But a while ago while writing about him, you said you were still looking for the first “internet candidate”. I believe Howard Dean might be the one.

    I support him.

  • Adam Rice

    It remains to be seen whether having come out against the war will prove a political asset or liability. People are ficke. Remember how invincible George I looked during Gulf War, Episode I. If this war goes badly (as seems quite possible), George II–and anyone who supported the war–will look the worse for it. Politically, it’s a gamble for Dean, just as it was a gamble for Edwards to stand up and say what he really thinks.

  • Fast Talking Sue

    The impressive thing about Dean is what he has to say about what needs to be done here in the US (I like his anti-war stance, but agree with the poster who points out that that issue is out of our hands) and the fact that he has the record to show that it can be done. What he achieved in Vermont is quite impressive (and my Vermont friends back him up on his claims).

    The other impressive thing is that he is seasoned enough and has done enough campaigning to know his own mind. He doesn’t travel with handlers and he doesn’t look to someone else to tell him what the most “important” issues are. When he is speaking on an issue I agree with him on (the war, investing in early education not prisons) or ones I don’t (including ethanol requirements as part of an energy policy or his gun position), I am absolutely convinved that he is telling me his real position, not something he’s been instructed to say. The guy is incredibly REAL and that comes across amazingly well.

    Edwards is going to have to learn to go with his gut, no matter what his handlers are telling him. He’s not ready for a presidential race, he needs more seasoning. He’s got to decide what he believes in – those issues which fire him up – and stick to them. Until then, he’s just a very good politician who will get creamed. I don’t want him getting the necessary experience by losing the 2004 election.

  • Petey

    to JB Armstrong,

    it’s hard to defeat a sitting president, even one as transparently insane as W. not only does the incumbent have to be weak, but the challenger must be very strong.

    howard dean worries me. don’t get me wrong, i like him. but his applause line about the confederate flag decals notwithstanding, i don’t see how he wins states in the south. and without them, he doesn’t get elected.

    of course, just maybe, dean is the democratic reagan – a guy who redefines how far from the center you can be and still get elected. but maybe not.

    i think 2004 is a crucial election. i’d feel a lot more secure about W getting dethroned, and a lot more secure about my country’s future if john edwards were the nominee.

  • Robert Musil

    Are you serious? “There was nothing crafted or rhetorical: it was simple and direct?”

    “Simple and direct” is exactly the style of crafted rhetoric that trial lawyers strive for, practice long and hard before the mirror to obtain. God, its a STUMP SPEECH! Edwards practiced it for hours. You seem actually PROUD of being a sucker for a jury argument.

    He spoke about “his support for affirmative action,” did he? Great. Did he explain what this weasly and most-abused-term-in-political-America term means to him? Outreach? Near-quotas? “Diversity” games? Better not to ask.

    And “civil rights?” Nice. I’ll bet he was FOR them – like Calvin Coolidge’s preacher was AGAINST sin.

    But I particularly like your representation of Edwards looking a war opponent in the eye and NOT LYING about the equivocal, ambiguous position he’s already staked out publicly – as if it were almost heroic. What did you expect him to do – claim that reports of his “war support” was a mass typographical error? But, even so, no serious person could conclude that Edwards would be facing Hussein down now – his was stance is nothing more than a clever device to address a difficult political situation. By the way, did he tell you what the magic diplomatic words are that would have made Hussein disarm or Chirac agree to a meaningful UN action? I’m with you – let’s hear it for a guy who can slice the baloney really, really thin! HOOOOO-RAY!! It’s almost like having Bill Clinton back! Great!

    These observations aren’t so much the work of someone who is “in rebound mode” as someone who is seriously hung over.

  • Seth Weinberger

    I also met John Edwards this week in a small group here in Chicago. I too was most struck by one thing: his passion. It’s easy to compare him to Kennedy on looks, but the more important comparison is leadership qualities. There are few Presidents or candidates since Kennedy who could pull off the “Ask what you can do for your country” as compellingly as Kennedy did. Like you, I believe that Edwards connected in the room I was in, and MOVED people. Next I need to see him on TV, since that’s how most people will see him, and the fire in his eyes may not be captured on the tube.

    I also had the same sense you had, that if he is not handled too much in the future, there is a directness in Edwards that will be refreshing for everyone. He doesn’t merely call Bush’s handling of international diplomacy a failure, he calls it a “disaster”. He will demolish Bush in a debate.

    The rich lawyer image could be a huge liability, but he has a jujitsu move to make a positive out of his past: he is proud to have devoted his career championing the cause of the little guy against the corporates. He ties this to his positions on the issues — e.g. against tax cuts for the rich– and it all holds together very genuinely.

    And he can help deliver some crucial swing electoral votes in the south.

    This is a guy to be taken very seriously in the months ahead.

  • Thomas

    I see. A candidate disagrees with you on the most fundamental issue facing the nation, and you swoon. I’m wondering why you don’t fall for Bush, with that kind of thinking.

    What’s more interesting is that Edwards’ campaign appears to be a reactionary campaign–a campaign about what’s been lost. A backward looking campaign. This is where the Democratic party is right now. Their vision for the future is like Bob Dole’s.

    Even more interesting is that intelligent people like Larry Lessig and Seth Weinberger could think that it was our diplomacy that offended the world, and not our war. Edwards says he supports the war (and not just the troops, in the new vernacular). It’s imposssible to comprehend what he’s getting at. (I look forward to a debate between Bush and Edwards, with Edwards explaining his logic on that one.) Perhaps the reaction tells us more about the listener and a rabid irrational antiBush strain of thought.

  • ustubb

    Well AliKarimBey, I agree that Graham would be the best Presidential candidate, but it’s no one else’s fault that he got in it too late.


    Graham is more qualified to be president…RIGHT NOW…than George W. Bush is. Graham served 2 terms as Governor in Florida and the people of Florida said that they hope he runs, he would have Florida locked up. If he got Florida, he might get Georgia. Edwards would probably help pull in at least 2 southern states, South Carolina (not his home state of North Carolina) and Arkansas or Tennessee. Graham has also served in the Senate since 1986 on the most important committees in the senate and before becoming Governor of Florida he served in Florida’s senate. This guys has all the…EXPERIENCE NEEDED…to be president, and Edwards would provide youth and vitality to the ticket and connect with the “regular folks.”

    That would be a dream-ticket come true, but it’ll never happen, simply because it would work.


    However, Bush was not experienced when he entered office. He was in his first term as Governor of Texas. What is my point here?


    It may be a plus, but it is all about who you…SURROUND YOURSELF WITH.

    Bush finalizes decisions, but he is no expert on anything…AT ALL. That is what the cabinet is for. That is what Congress is for.

    Edwards has the experience that most people want in a President. He comes from humble backgrounds, and it’s good that he doesn’t gloat where he is now, but he looks back on his struggles and he understands what…MOST PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY FACE.

    He doesn’t need to be a military strategist. THAT IS WHAT A RETIRED GENERAL LIKE WESLEY CLARK IS FOR! Clark would make a great Secretary of Defense! Ever seen this guy on CNN???

    He doesn’t have to be a genius in policy…BUSH ISN’T! While I would like a Graham-Edwards ticket in order to season Edwards a little more so that people will think he is capable maybe after Graham left the White House if they won so that Edwards could just step right in in 2012, I would support an Edwards-Graham ticket in 2004. Look at Bush/Cheney. Cheney has been in Washington forever, and Bush doesn’t know anything. That’s why he has Cheney. Edwards could do the same with Graham. Also, that would bring in Florida for Edwards.

    Point is. Experience matters, but we live in the “AGE OF INFORMATION.” Knowledge is power. The president doesn’t have to have the knowledge or experience in every area, but he has surround himself with experts who do. Then the president has to take…WHAT’S BEST FOR THE COUNTRY…into consideration when he makes final decisions based on what comes across his desk.

    When he makes those final decisions, the decisions are made based on how the president was raised, and his beliefs, and he thinks about the people who are closest to him and were closest to him when growing up. Bush thinks about all of the oil executives and people millionaires who were closest to him, Edwards thinks about the factory workers, the people in the town dinner, the old people who needed help once they got too old to work. That’s what the president needs to think about.

    Just like the bible says, “Romans 15:1 – We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”

    I would rather have someone in the White House who considers the least instead of just the great dollar from private interests. He can still think about the people who donate to him, but don’t disregard the basis of this country…WORKING CLASS FAMILIES.

    With that said, when finalizing a decision, Edwards would probably think about working through college, being the first person in his family to go to college like myself. He would think about seeing his parents struggling to make ends meet. He would think about seeing the jobs that poor people work closing as the owners send their businesses out of the country for cheaper labour. His decisions would be affected by real life situations which most people in this country face daily, and I think that’s the kind of experience that a president needs to have. Especially after the economic disaster that the Bush administration has put this country in.

  • Anonymous

    I find Howard Dean and Al Sharpton interesting to hear talk because they speak well to a crowd and Sharpton in particular has a good delivery. But entertainment isn’t always enough ot make a good president. Ultimately I know the Democrats will not pick Dean or Sharpton.

    Maybe they’ll pick Lieberman because he can get some (I’m guessing much needed) money from weapons contractors (which will help solidify my thinking that Democrats really are trying to be like pro-war Republicans and offer anti-war people little choice who to vote for). I am not convinced the Democrats are done trying to be Republicans and I’m not convinced the Democrats have figured out what their message is (I couldn’t figure it out in the mid-term elections and I gather much of the US couldn’t either).

    I hope the Democratic party will show me how this economy is going to be pulled out of recession, how we’re going to either get out of the war and provide some real aid for the Afghani and Iraqi people after the US has finished bombing them into democracy, and a universal health care plan that is at least as good as the one John Conyers introduced into Congress recently (the one nobody is talking about–not even progressives who claim to love universal health care). There are lots of important domestic issues to talk about for the Democrats, but so far they’re just letting the Republicans tell them what they should be campaigning on. I want a Democratic party who will not just *talk* progressive but *act* progressive too. Right now I don’t know what to make of the Democrats except that for the first time in a while their power is receeding and they don’t know how to fix it.

  • Anonymous

    “I agree that invading Iraq is the wrong answer. But I respect people who tell me straight that they believe what I believe is wrong.”

    McCain tells me straight that he disagrees with me. In fact, he appears to be one of the most principled men in Congress. But do you really want someone with the integrity to do what you believe is the wrong thing?

    Seems to me that is what’s behind Bush and Blair at the moment. Blair especially is doing something his people don’t support, apparently simply because he believes its the right thing to do. I’d rather have a spineless waffler in power who will do what I want than someone with the guts to defy public opinion (or at least my own opinion; I am ideologically selfish in that way).

  • Michael Ferrill

    Thank you for your observations on Edwards. The ability to inspire is increasingly rare among presidential candidates. Count me among those who made a contribution based in part on your post.