Thursday, January 31, 2008

"For John Edwards, A Moment of Truth"

Politics demands that some truths cannot be told. You cannot divulge how much you ache inside, how difficult defeat is to swallow until you swallow it.
A week ago John Edwards was on his campaign bus barnstorming through rural South Carolina when he was asked a question that so many were pondering about his presidential candidacy: Are you in the Democratic race for the long haul?

"Yes, sir," he said.

Regardless of how well you do in the South Carolina primary or on Super Tuesday? Is there any calculation that would change your mind?

Edwards shook his head, no. He would compete all the way to the Democratic National Convention.

"This is not about me or my personal ambition," he said in the interview. "It's about the cause and the voices who are not being heard."

Yesterday, Edwards ended his campaign where he began it, in New Orleans, invoking the cause of poverty and the voices of janitors, nurses and poultry workers. He ended it with a straightforward declarative sentence: "It's time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path." That was a simple truth he had long known, for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was bound to win the Democratic nomination. But it was a truth he felt he could not reveal even a week ago.

Hindsight is a cheap piece of instant wisdom, not nearly so valuable as prescience. But here's some hindsight from South Carolina: As Edwards campaigned there, a native son come home, his voice was strong and passionate whenever he was onstage or bellowing from a bullhorn. But when he was mingling in a diner, when folks were whispering in his ear, when he was signing their posters, his eyes sometimes told a different story -- and not one of attentive exuberance. He had the dead eyes of a candidate looking past the moment.

At Whiteford's Giant Burger in Laurens, S.C., a retired woman beckoned him toward her. "I don't know if I can get way over there," Edwards told her. "I'm sorry." She was not more than 10 feet away. Would Edwards have made the small effort at a different point in his campaign? For whatever hindsight's worth.

And there was this: "The whole country knows [Elizabeth] is terminally ill," former Georgia congressman Ben Jones said of Edward's wife and political partner. "If it's you or me, it's a no-brainer. Elizabeth is such a trouper, and she campaigned so relentlessly, I'm sure she was exhausted. I think he made the right decision on a personal level, that his priority was her health. It's hard for either one of them to give this up."

Beginning Tuesday night and continuing yesterday morning, Edwards made phone calls to people who needed to know of his decision before he announced it. He reached Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a senior strategist and the campaign's national rural liaison, in a hotel room in Atlanta. Saunders was preparing for Super Tuesday. The news turned him melancholy.

"I'm a Scots-Irish hillbilly. I operate on passion rather than intelligence," he said. Saunders spoke by phone yesterday evening while traveling the highways headed home to Virginia. "I'm going to get home and get under my bed and get in a fetal position and suck my thumb with my gun, and then get back out there."

When Edwards phoned, he told Saunders: "I just want you to know you're my pal." According to Saunders, Edwards was more worried about him than anything else. Edwards did not, however, speak another truth that seems evident: He is drawn more to Obama than to Clinton.

Campaign advisers say this, and Edwards's debate and stump performances say this. Yesterday, however, all Edwards would say is he will continue talking to both candidates but not endorse anyone just yet.

But here's what ol' Mudcat had to say about that: "I'm going to do everything I can to make sure it's not Hillary Clinton." Saunders added: "Hillary Clinton has about as much chance of beating John McCain as this Scots-Irish hillbilly has of becoming pope."

This, of course, presumes John McCain will be the Republican nominee. But regardless, Saunders's logic is that there is no state in the country that Clinton can win that John Kerry didn't win in 2004. Which leaves the Democrats a state short of victory.

"I've gone over the math carefully," said Saunders. "Barack Obama, I don't know enough about him to make that decision on whether he can win. I've never met him. But his chances would have to be stronger than Hillary's."


"She's got toxic coattails," added Saunders. "I think it could be devastating for the party."

John Edwards would never say anything like that.

When asked in the interview last week if he had more in common with Obama or Clinton, there was a nine-second pause. "It's a complicated question," Edwards finally said. And then he went into, for a second time, how much pride he felt that his party could have an African American and a woman as its two leading candidates. "I'll just leave it at that for now."

But others won't.

Jones, best known as Cooter on the 1980s TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard," campaigned for Edwards in all of the early states. He said most of the Edwards staffers he dealt with were partial to the senator from Illinois. Interviews with other campaign aides suggest Jones is onto something. One senior Edwards adviser said Obama was not perfect, but comes closest to being a consensus second choice: "Clinton is the status quo, Obama appeases the status quo. And John fights the status quo."

Except John has left the ring.

"I've already enlisted in the Barack Obama campaign," Jones said. "The fight goes on. It's about the past and the future, and I'm with the future. I think the Clintons are the past."

As for what Edwards will do?

That truth is known. It just hasn't been revealed.

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