TUESDAY AFTERNOON: The fates of the Carolina Panthers and John Edwards are somewhat linked in my mind. Because here in North Carolina, a number of people are commenting what a boon it is to the state’s national profile both that Edwards has surged in the Democratic primaries and that the Panthers made the Super Bowl.
Being a good football team, being the leader of the free world—no distinction is made between these two accomplishments. They’re about equally noteworthy and convertible into the same kind of PR currency. I find this boosterish attitude pretty numbskulled, but it seems to prevail in every U.S. Sunbelt city, Atlanta and Charlotte and Nashville, each of whom jumps up and down shouting Notice us! It doesn’t matter why! So I daydream occasionally about living in a “real” or at least more self-confident city: London… Paris… Pittsburgh…
The Panthers acquitted themselves well in losing a close battle on Sunday. Edwards may be about to do the same thing in today’s South Carolina primary. (Or maybe he’ll do better; I don’t have a prediction.) John Edwards owns a house about two miles from mine, I voted for him enthusiastically for Senate in 1998, so you’d think I’d be more deliriously excited about his Presidential contender status. Surprise, even puzzlement, is more my reaction. As far as I can tell, Edwards is a very smart guy, hard-working, with a good heart and some wonderful leadership qualities. But a lot of people here feel he hasn’t paid his proper dues, put in his time.
Edwards loves to cite his textile-mill town upbringing; opponents love to bring up his career as a trial lawyer. I give him credit for being a genuinely self-made man (a stark contrast with G.W. Bush in that regard) and a great lawyer: winner of some American Bar Association litigator of the year award, victor in a couple of well-known big-money civil cases, and a deservedly rich dude, owner of a sweet house in Raleigh’s Country Club Hills.
Edwards had a bitch of a midlife crisis when his teenage son died in a highway accident, and fairly abruptly shifted his energies from his law practice to politics. Not only was he not a Dem Party activist, Edwards had rarely even voted prior to declaring for the ’98 Senate race. He won that election, on the strength of his charisma, several million of his own dollars, and Lauch Faircloth being an undistinguished Republican opponent. Hardly had Edwards gotten his feet wet in Washington before he was short-listed for Al Gore’s vice presidential nod, and since then John’s sights have been set on bigger things than merely representing me in the United States Senate.
That was a pretty widespread view: that John Edwards was neglecting his constituents in favor of his long-shot prospects for the White House. Just a few months ago, with Edwards’s re-election to his Senate seat in question (he trailed Richard Burr, Karl Rove’s handpicked candidate, in the polls), the state Democratic Party prevailed on him to step aside from Senate re-election. The party needed an actual candidate to stump in Cabarrus County, not in New Hampshire and Iowa.
So the man’s sudden surge is remarkable. And he deserves a world of credit; he has labored mightily to organize his campaign and hone his pitch. It sounds like he gives the most inspiring speech of any of the national Democratic contenders. I just can’t quite shake the cognitive dissonance between Edwards’s standing three months ago and his standing today. To most of the country Edwards has come out of nowhere; to me and to a lot of liberals in the state, he was worse than nowhere, he was in the doghouse, a minor or medium-sized disappointment. Even today, the Raleigh and Chapel Hill movers-n-shakers who talk up John Edwards’s recent celebrity as good for the state, would probably be most comfortable with Kerry at the top of the ticket and Edwards in the VP position.
I’m sure I would take more chauvinistic pride if ex-Governor Jim Hunt had been the Tar Heel to break through in national politics. Hunt is shorter, plainer, less charismatic than Edwards, but he was a political lifer—he was gladhanding voters for N.C. State student government races when he was 18. Hunt’s rapid rise was halted, though, when he tangled with Jesse Helms in 1984. After that he spent some time in corporate law, and liked the view from the suites, and even though he would serve two more terms as governor, Hunt's stock was down and his ambition was muted.