John Edwards capped a meteoric six-year rise through politics Wednesday night, standing before the Democratic National Convention as its candidate for vice president of the United States and urging Americans to replace President Bush with his Senate colleague, John Kerry.
Edwards, 51, an enormously successful trial lawyer who did not even enter politics until North Carolinians elected him to the Senate in 1998, technically was not speaking as the party’s vice presidential nominee; the delegates will nominate him Thursday. After he spoke, they formally nominated Kerry for the top spot on the ticket.
Edwards fell short in his challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination last winter. But he won many admirers for his sunny, optimistic style, and he stuck to it Wednesday as Kerry’s running mate.
Edwards tweaked the Republicans for “doing all they can to take this campaign for the highest office in the land down the lowest possible road” and predicted that worse was yet to come. “Aren’t you sick of it?” he asked.
“This is where you come in,” he said “Between now and November, you — the American people — you can reject the tired, old, hateful, negative, politics of the past. And instead, you can embrace the politics of hope, the politics of what’s possible because this is America, where everything is possible.”
Edwards made it clear that he thought that road led to John Kerry, whom he called “decisive” and “strong,” hammering home themes party leaders were determined to get across to undecided voters. “Aren’t these the traits you want in a commander-in-chief?”
Americans introduced to new face
Edwards used the opportunity of a nationally televised address to introduce himself to Americans who may not have paid much attention to the campaign until now.
Edwards relied on the same reliable themes that helped fuel his unexpectedly strong presidential challenge, telling of his own modest childhood as the son of a mill worker who rose through hard work and intelligence to become a multimillionaire lawyer.
“I have had such incredible opportunities in my life, and I was blessed to be the first person in my family to go to college,” Edwards said. “I worked my way through, and I have had opportunities way beyond what I could have ever imagined.”
That struggle made him a champion of ordinary working Americans, said Edwards, who reprised the heart of his nomination campaign.
“The truth is, we still live in two different Americas: one for people who have lived the American Dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans who work hard and still struggle to make ends meet,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Many promises, few specifics
Edwards ran through a long list of proposals designed to sell the Democratic ticket as the best choice to “build one America.”
Saying “hard work should be valued in this country, and we’re going to reward work, not just wealth,” Edwards promised that a Kerry administration would “stop giving tax breaks to companies that outsource your jobs. Instead, we will give tax breaks to American companies that keep jobs here in America.”
He said Kerry would push through a tax break and reform the health care system to lower insurance premiums by as much as $1,000. To cover the rising costs of child care, he promised a tax credit up to $1,000, and he offered a tax break on up to $4,000 in college tuition, an unspecified rise in the minimum wage and a program to reform welfare.
He offered no specifics on how a new administration would pay for those programs, however, promising only that it would “roll back the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, close corporate loopholes and cut government contractors and wasteful spending.” He did not address how Kerry planned to get such a program through what is almost certain to remain a Republican-controlled Congress.
Edwards to al-Qaida: ‘We will destroy you’
Edwards also talked tough on the war in Iraq, promising that Kerry would “strengthen and modernize our military.” He said a Democratic White House would double the military’s Special Forces and “invest in the new equipment and technologies.”
“We will have one clear unmistakable message for al-Qaida and the rest of these terrorists: You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you,” he said.
Criticizing Bush’s go-it-alone diplomatic policy, Edwards said Kerry would “get NATO to help secure Iraq” and “ensure that Iraq’s neighbors, like Syria and Iran, don’t stand in the way of a democratic Iraq. We can help Iraq’s economy by getting other countries to forgive their enormous debt and participate in the reconstruction.”
He said Kerry would ensure “a safe and secure Israel” and “secure all the loose nukes in Russia.” And he promised that the Democrats would “close the loophole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that allows rogue nations access to the tools they need to develop these weapons.”
As he did on domestic policy, however, Edwards again did not say how Kerry’s foreign policy team intended to reverse the opposition of NATO allies like Germany and France to U.S. involvement in Iraq, nor how it would persuade Russia to allow U.S. forces to police it for nuclear weapons, nor how Israel and the Palestinians could be brought to the table to settle their differences, a goal that has escaped U.S. presidents for more than a half-century.
Instead, he implied, voters could simply trust the Democrats to “get this done right.”
‘The right stuff’
Edwards was introduced to the delegates by his wife, Elizabeth, a noted lawyer herself, who described her husband as “the smartest, toughest, sweetest man I know” — a natural-born fighter who had always had the optimism to see the “brighter day ahead.”
She chronicled his rise from humble beginnings to legal stardom and — ultimately — to the halls of the Senate, driven by the desire “to make the great opportunities of America available to all Americans.”
“He knew there was a brighter day ahead, even as he swept the floors in the cotton mill. He knew if he worked hard enough, he could be the first in his family to go to college. He knew that he could outwork and out-tough any battalion of lawyers to find justice,” said Edwards, who was greeted to the packed convention floor with a sea of signs that read “Elizabeth.”
Edwards also recalled a time her husband dressed up as Santa Claus for an inner-city child care center. “You know, he even looks dashing in a Santa suit,” she said. “If the cause was just and his voice was needed, he was there.”
Edwards has called herself an “anti-Barbie,” a down-to-earth, 55-year-old mother who left a high-powered law career after the death of her oldest child, Wade, eight years ago, at age 16, in an auto accident.
She has called that event the “A.D.-B.C.” moment of her life. The Edwardses decided to have more children as a way to lead themselves and their daughter Cate, 22, through the pain.
Two new children
Aided by hormone treatments, Edwards was pregnant with Emma Claire, now 6, during her husband’s run for the Senate in 1998. She had Jack, 4, when she was 50.
Like Teresa Heinz Kerry, Edwards spent much of her youth abroad, attending school in Japan, where her father, a decorated Navy pilot, was stationed.
She married John Edwards, her law school sweetheart, in 1977, the weekend after she passed the bar exam. She clerked for a U.S. District Court judge and worked in the North Carolina attorney general’s office. Since the birth of her youngest children, she has been active in two foundations dedicated to Wade.
While her speech focused on Edwards, she drew comparisons between her father and her husband’s running mate, both Navy veterans.
“Like John Kerry, my father fought for this country,” she said. “Like John Kerry, he was decorated risking his life in her service. My father had another thing in common with John Kerry and with so many of our uniformed men and women across this country and around the world: He has the right stuff. I married a man with the right stuff.”