CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If one figure loomed large in absentia this week at the Democratic National Convention, it was John Edwards.
The former U.S. senator plummeted in a seeming instant from his party’s golden young man to a tortured tabloid cliche.
Edwards infamously cheated on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and fathered a child with a campaign worker, then tried to cover up the mess.
So the North Carolinian with the perfect hair and the sweet-tea voice was nowhere to be seen this week. His Chapel Hill home sits just 21/2 hours up Interstate 85, but Edwards was not invited and barely spoken about.
The loss of another narcissistic, self-destructive politician might not amount to much in some ways. But along with Edwards went a moment in Democratic Party politics when national figures talked about an issue that has all but disappeared from the agenda — poverty.
There may have been a caucus or meeting on the poor this week in Charlotte, but the topic was pushed to the sidelines. It’s hardly been mentioned in a prolonged Republican primary season, except as a negative: Mitt Romney and vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan insist (falsely) that President Obama wants to cut work requirements for people on welfare.
It wasn’t this way just four years ago, partly due to circumstance but also because of the presence of the native Carolinian, Edwards. Through much of his 2007-2008 race for president, he talked about the untenable divide between the “two Americas.”
Even aides who became bitterly disappointed with Edwards’ personal failings said that his compassion for the less fortunate was not feigned. They saw too many times, with no cameras around, when the “son of a mill worker” would vent his dismay, and some anger, about how poor people had been left without access to education and, especially, medical care.
He may have been more committed to his own ambitions, like a lot of pols, said one former aide, but “he was more committed to the issue of poverty than any politician in a long time.”
The former assistant declined to be named, lest he be seen as piling on a figure for whom he still feels empathy. A federal jury in May failed to convict Edwards of charges that he used campaign funds to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter.
It’s hard to know if any national politician could get traction today for an initiative to provide more benefits to the poor. The Great Recession had just kicked off in 2008 and many Americans remained more hopeful about a relatively short downturn.
But in 2012, said the Edwards aide, “the middle class has been struggling so much that reminding people that there are others faring even worse is not a particularly successful recipe for victory.” If anything, the talk has been about cutting government aid.
“It’s a topic that needs to be driven by morality and not interest,” continued the assistant. “This is a tough time to bring out issues like that.”
Four years ago, Edwards felt no such constraints. His aides saw the former trial lawyer genuinely moved by the plight of poor people, who reminded him of the mill workers his family grew up with in North Carolina.
One man who particularly captured Edwards’ imagination was James Lowe, a 51-year-old coal miner from eastern Kentucky. The politician met the blue-collar worker on the campaign trail. He had been disabled in the mines and unable to work and, before that, spent most of his life barely able to speak because he had no insurance or money to repair a cleft palate.