This is really not my forté... I'm shy, and even under good circumstances I tend not to think well or quickly on my feet. This I believe makes me exceptionally bad at schmoozing with members of, you know, the world power elite. On Tuesday I posted a diary
on Street Prophets
(the new dKos official spinoff blog managed by Pastordan) saying help! and soliciting questions to ask. Lots of people made suggestions, and I wrote many of them down in a little memo book to take with me. I appreciate everybody's help and encouragement!
Yesterday morning I got an email from my contact person reminding me to come; there was only one other addressee. So, it would be just two of us rather than a comforting and well-armed crowd of bloggers. I stuffed my little notebook, my trusty digicam, and a mini tape recorder in my backpack and took a bus downtown. Nice Wisconsin fall day, cool but not real cold. I got a really nice squash and tofu curry for lunch at a Thai food stand. I spilled some of it on my pants and didn't really succeed at scrubbing it out, but oh well.
The doors of the Union Theatre opened at 2 and as the place filled with students I was directed the press section. I pondered whether I believed myself to be press, and decided that since I had a notebook, camera, and tape recorder, and intended to publish an article, de facto the answer should be yes. The others ranged from student newspaper reporters to newspaper photographers with huge lenses, radio guys, a couple TV stations, and the other blogger, whose name on his blog, Sam, doesn't match the name he told me, so I'll assume he doesn't want his real name connected to the blog.
Hopeful pop music played as Students in Opportunity Rocks T-shirts mounted tiered platforms on the stage to act as scenery. Finally there was an efficient introduction of the beaming, charismatic Edwards. The man lives up to his reputation as a talented speaker. He's very fluent and he hit all the right notes.
It was his own idea to tour college campuses to ask students to take action on poverty, the greatest moral issue in America today, he told us. He's spent a lot of time in the last 8-9 months traveling and meeting people living in poverty. They violate every stereotype of the poor as lazy and irresponsible. Katrina exposed the ugly face of America, but the poor always get hurt the worst; they live on a razor's edge every day.
In a Baton Rouge evacuee center, he met people waiting in a long line for services. A 9th Ward evacuee said he'd lost not only his home, but his job of 23 years. This was a man for whom hard work was a way of life. At the shelter he went out front every day at 5 AM in hopes that a man in a pickup truck who hired day laborers would give him work. So far he hadn't been picked, but the man expressed confidence that eventually he would be. He represents, said Edwards, the best of what America has to offer.
But on a whole, the poor are largely women, especially single mothers. They typically work long hours and often multiple jobs, at low wages.
He doesn't have all the answers on how to end poverty; the one thing he's certain about is this country is hungry for an issue that means something, eager to help. People want a sense of national community again. "America should be about a bigger calling. Something better than this mess in Iraq we're in right now.... What (the poor) desperately need is a champion. They've never had anybody to stand up for them. That champion is you"--students; young people.
Edwards recalls when he was a young man, watching Bobby Kennedy going through Appalachia showing us an America we didn't know about. It is because of the war on poverty (he never specifically mentions "because of Democrats") that we have many of the educational opportunity and safety net programs that today benefit not just the poor, but everyone.
"We need a grassroots movement. We need to be loud and ferocious so the politicians will listen." He said "loud and ferocious" at least three times in his talk.
He talks about his own life just a little: "Elizabeth (his wife, a breast cancer survivor) is doing very well," he tells us happily, to applause. "Some of you might remember I'm the son of a mill worker," he says dryly, to more applause and laughter. He went to public school, state university, state university grad school, state university law school. "I did not get here by myself," but reminds us that his dad the mill worker was as good a man as he.
He affirms that the minimum wage is a moral issue and that it must be raised. He is angry about predatory payday lending, "It's expensive to be poor;" they pay interests costs none of us ever would, 600% even, because they have no choice (nobody could argue that's not usury).
It's not a good idea to cluster poor people together. He favors housing vouchers that create mobility, that allow the poor to move to better neighborhoods. He also touts the "College For Everyone" plan in a poor county in eastern North Carolina, where any student willing to meet some basic requirements and work ten hours a week may receive free tuition at a state university.
We need to ask ourselves as a nation, "do we really believe everybody has equal worth?" Britain has committed to end poverty by 2020, he notes admiringly, and describes a lengthy discussion he had with Tony Blair on antipoverty issues. It's also an international issue. And where are we while genocide happens in Darfur? Didn't we say "never again" after it happened in Rwanda? Where are we on human rights issues worldwide; on democracy in Russia? "We need to fill this void of moral leadership and put America back where it should be, leading on big moral issues."
He watched young people lead the fight for civil rights, speak out against the Vietnam War, speak out in the 80s against apartheid in South Africa. And he was asking students today to take on poverty, the single greatest moral issue in his mind, as their issue to be passionate activists for.
His speech was right at 45 minutes, and afterward he spoke with students, posed for pictures, shook hands and signed autographs, near the back of the theatre. Press were ushered into a lounge to wait. I talked with David Ginsberg, Edwards' communications director during his presidential primary run; and told him I was grateful the senator would speak with bloggers, and (I was thinking of Markos and other blogging evangelists as much as of myself) that we like to be told we're special. He smiled and said in the most winning tone, "you are special." Aw shucks... I bet he says that to all the press! David earned my admiration, he was so kind and comforting as well as good at what he does.
Edwards finally arrived and dutifully answered press questions. I joined the little press huddle and turned on my recorder. I'll transcribe:
Question: (something about regaining the moral high ground amidst world criticism about the Iraq war)
Edwards: Well I think it's critical to reclaim the moral high ground, both here and abroad, and I would add to that, I think the issue that I was talking about, poverty, is not something that started a year ago or two years; this is something that's been going on a long time. Political leaders have had a long time to do something about it. Some efforts have been made--I don't wanna be unfair--but not nearly enough. There's been no national effort to do something about this. I think the most important thing is for us to commit as a nation, that this is a huge moral call, that we're gonna end poverty as we know it.
Question: (something about Katrina and poverty)
Edwards: I think actually that what people saw on their television screens after Katrina is something that existed in America for a long time, that was brought graphically home to most Americans. The window is open; there's an opportunity here; the question is, will it stay open, or will it be short-term. And that really depends on these students, whether we can get the kind of grassroots movement started to end poverty, that's what it depends on.
Question: It's a pretty global problem these days, what can college students do to help out with that?
Edwards: College students can do two things. First, they can actually commit, which we've asked them to do, to volunteer 20 hours for community service, and they could help with organizations that help fight poverty. The second thing they could do is they can unite with other students around America and advocate on causes that affect people who live in poverty. For example, raising the minimum wage. And so what we're gonna do is, we gotta use the students here, join up with students around America, and start the kind of grassroots movement that I think is necessary to end poverty.
Question: You feel like you've inspired students to do that on this tour?
Edwards: Well I hope so; we've had a great response; all I can do is speak from my heart about this, and they're the ones who have actually got to do something about poverty in America. People who live in poverty need a champion; these students can be their champion.
Question: There's a good opportunity in the rebuilding of New Orleans, of the gulf, to do something real about poverty, but there's a danger that instead of doing something about that we're going to be enriching corporations like Halliburton...
Edwards: You're absolutely right. In fact, I'm glad you brought that up since in some of these speeches I've talked about that. What we ought to be doing, instead of giving huge, billion dollar contracts to multinational corporations like Halliburton is, instead we should take the people who lost their jobs, lost their homes, put them to work, paying them a decent wage, with good benefits, so that they can rebuild their lives, rebuild the city that they grew up in and love.
Question: I remember in 2004, the talk about, you can't talk about poverty when you're running for office. You're doing that now, is it gonna be your kinda call going into 2008?
Edwards: This is something I cared about since I ever got involved in politics. It's something that, I got to decide when the election was over what I wanted to do with my life, and the truth is, whatever I do with the rest of my life, if I along with these students can do something serious about poverty in America, my life will have been worthwhile.
Question: You feel like this helps increase your visibility at all, this whole tour...
Edwards: Actually I think about it the other way around. The fact that I have some visibility, I can attract people like you to come to these events; helps us to champion the causes of people who live in poverty.
Question: What are you thinking about 2006, talking about taking back the House and the Senate...
Edwards: (interrupting, not quite testy but preferring to talk about the poverty issue) You're talking about politics now.
Edwards: I think, looking at what's happening in politics now, we have a mess in Iraq, we have a poor response to the hurricane by the government, we have all this extraordinary stuff that people are sick of going on in Washington DC, you know, grand jury investigations of administration officials, Tom Delay being indicted, people are tired of all that. What they really want, are leaders to inspire them to something big and beyond their own self-interest. I think poverty is one of those things.
Question: Mr Edwards, can you comment on Harriet Meiers?
Edwards: I think that we know very little about Harriet Meiers, and, you know she's been George Bush's lawyer. That does not qualify her to be on the United States Supreme Court. And I think there are a lot of hard questions that need to be asked; I think hearings are gonna be critical, and documents that are being asked for are also critical. Because she has very little public record, we need to find out what it is, what her views are, and what her experience is.
Question: (in a very apologetic "my editor told me to get a quote on this" tone) John, I gotta ask--would you be thinking of making another run some time (for the Presidency)?
Edwards: This, this campaign against poverty is where my campaign at heart is right now. Want to make sure Elizabeth gets well, she's doing great, want to make sure that she's gonna be okay. For right now, this is what I'm focused on.
Question: Any other major topics you're planning on taking on after this?
Edwards: This is where my life is right now.
Question: (from a student reporter) In your opinion, why hasn't an initiative like Opportunity Rocks been formed earlier?
Edwards: Oh, I think that people are cynical about college students. They think that they're apathetic, they won't get engaged, I don't care, my answer to that is, we haven't asked them to do anything. And the response I've seen on this college tour has been incredible. I mean if you could just stand there with me while I'm speaking to all the students afterwards, to hear how excited they are, how inspired they are, they want something big to do. They're just looking for a chance, and we're gonna try to give them that chance.
Question: If you're not gonna say if you're running in 2008, what is your ideal ticket?
Edwards: (a touch of irritation) For what? My dream ticket is to have someone running for president and vice president of the United States who will stand up and fight for the kind of people we're working for today (ie the poor).
The press filed out, while David assured Sam and I that Edwards would meet with us in just a few minutes, and to have a seat while John took photos with the Opportunity Rocks student volunteers, signed autographs, talked and smiled. "It's hard to get him away sometimes," David said apologetically. "I think it's very sweet he takes the time to talk with them," I said, as we watched the patient, happy John interact with students. It seemed to be David's job to keep the senator on schedule and not let anybody monopolize him too much, but he didn't interfere, and it wasn't long before Edwards finished with the students and his other assistants showed them out.
So, it was just me and fellow blogger Sam cowering there, with the moral support of friendly David, as John Edwards strode over. I struggled to my feet and received his firm handshake. He was very tall, robust, adorable and tan. But as young as he looks, it seemed like a trick, because I'm hardly used to anyone that self-possessed and adult and full of weighty cares. During his press session I'd noted what a pro he was. He didn't telegraph resentment of the press, but I thought it was a familiar kind of gauntlet, a rapids to be navigated with deft skill, to deliver his intended message.
I thought later that his whole life, as a crackerjack trial lawyer and as a top-tier politician doing regular battle with reporters, had shaped in him a rather un-candid and careful style. I don't get the impression he's a very introspective or overly analytical man, but I think he wins on his superb instincts and talent for conveying moral truths. As Sam and I talked with him, he remained largely in press mode, but I'd stopped wanting to be press.
John took a seat on a high stool, and Sam on another, and I, having been comfortable on my low seat and in my nervousness caring more about comfort than eye-line, sat back down there, in front of John and looking up at him. I thought momentarily of one of my boyfriend's good friends who has storyboarded many major feature films, and reflected that the low angle accurately reflected my intimidation in this scene. Bad interviewing form; good artistic choice. I was even almost glad of my obvious noviceness, because he did gradually relax just a little. Hey, I'm just a blogger, which is often like being a fan.
Sam: (inaudible about Medicare and Medicaid and Republicans) I'm wondering what measures can be taken to insure these benefits?
Edwards: The most important thing is for people out here in the real world, outside of Washington, to speak up, loudly, then the politicians will pay attention; that's the reason what we're trying to do on this poverty tour is a piece of that, trying to inspire young people to engage and be advocates.
Me: [chuckling nervously] I'm with Daily Kos, obviously [I indicate my t-shirt], and with a Daily Kos spinoff blog called Street Prophets, for faith and politics.
Edwards: Okay, I know Daily Kos.
Me: ...we're about a month old, it's like Daily Kos, it's a community-type site like that.
Me: [reading from my memo pad one of the questions suggested by a SP member] What role do you see for the religious left in the near term--for instance on poverty? These are issues we talk about a lot on our blog. What's there to do for people of faith, to support you [by "you" I was thinking political leaders working on policy solutions]? Particularly on the blogs...
Edwards: Oh there's a lot to do. Well that's how I got involved on poverty to begin with, was with a faith-based group in North Carolina called Urban Ministries, and then, the truth is, when the government's not doing what it needs to do, it's the faith-based community that is often the place of last resort, and that's the place that people get the help that they need. And I'm now going to college campuses, but the truth is, anything we can do to reach communities around this country, and the faith communities obviously, is helpful. So, anything that we can do using technology, blogging, to reach that community is very important.
Sam: I know a big reason why people declare bankruptcy is because of high health care costs. Being a trial lawyer, do you think tort reform is the correct way to go about revamping health care, if you have any ideas...?
Edwards: We need to... the cost of court cases is less than 1% of the cost of health care in this country, so it's a tiny piece of it.. What we need to do is focus on solving the big problems of escalating health care costs, of 45-46 million people who don't have health care coverage, and there are lots of things we need to do to get coverage, to bring down costs. The problem is, this government's not doing any of them. I mean they let the drug companies charge whatever they want; whenever there's some commonsense proposal made to bring down the cost of healthcare, either the drug companies or the health insurance companies are against it and as a result nothing gets done, and it gets to be a pretty... and by the way, health care is a big part of this poverty issue.
Edwards: Well I'll give you an example, I met a woman in Columbia, Missouri last week when I was at the University of Missouri for the college tour. And she was with this group called Women of Work, where they mentor young women who are either pregnant or single mothers, and this woman was actually someone who was there getting help, third year law student at the University of Missouri. She said to me, I'm poor, I get help with my rent, I get food stamps, I get Medicaid coverage so my kids have health care coverage. And she said, I kept wanting to go to work while I've been in law school, but they told me if I went to work my kids would lose their Medicaid coverage. I couldn't make enough to provide coverage for them, so we wouldn't have any healthcare coverage. And she says, what is wrong with this system, it's completely messed up. And she's exactly right.
Sam: So would you suggest something like, um, what Clinton did where people could work on Social Security a certain number of hours, do you feel like something like that could be initiated with...
Edwards: I think there are lots of things we can do. We could expand the Medicaid system, we could expand the coverage for kids to include their parents, we could expand Medicare coverage allowing seniors who aren't yet eligible for Medicare to buy in at cost, we've got lots of things we could do to cover more people. That's not the issue. The issue is, is there a will to do it? And we need political leaders who have a will to do it. So what'll happen is, if the politicians don't do it, eventually the country will demand that it be done, because the health care system's in crisis in this country.
Me: Somebody suggested that I ask you what you think is gonna happen to the poor renters of New Orleans, the people who didn't own a home to begin with.
Edwards: I think they're in a terrible place. I think they don't have a place to go back to; it's gonna be a long time for them to rebuild; the question is... and not only that, I mean, you think about the way this is likely to happen, building rental housing, especially subsidized rental housing, will probably not be at the top of the priority list. I think the reality is, they're gonna have a hard time, and this is one of those times when they need their government to be there for them.
Me: I went and saw a speaker recently, who was from New Orleans, who talked about how a lot of the poor and the people of color who dispersed just were not going to be coming back to New Orleans...
Edwards: [soberly] I think that's right.
Me: ...and that New Orleans was never going to be the same city again.
Edwards: Welll, I think that depends on what kind of... well we could make it an extraordinary place but that requires a commitment to accomplishing some of the things I talked about in the speech.
Edwards: Not having a segregated city, not having all the poor people clustered together, having economic and racial integration.
Me: [interrupting] One of the things he talked about was that New Orleans in the reconstruction was going to be essentially a planned city, and that it would be probably a kind of model for how cities would be built in the forseeable future. So, he was concerned about what the planning was going to be, and the idea of integrating the poor is an aspect, and... a lot of people don't want them back.
Edwards: [a little warmer than he had been] Yeah... they should be back... what we should do is get the ones who want to go back, back in the city. But we should bring them back in a way that doesn't recreate the problems that existed before. I mean, that's what it boils down to. Which means you've got to find incentives and help, supplementation, like for example you heard me talking about housing vouchers, that's one way of doing it. So that we get people to move across what existed as boundaries before the hurricane.
Sam: I just had a quick question: what advice can you give those of us attempting to follow in your footsteps to go into politics, and try to do something from the inside?
Edwards: The single most important thing in politics in America today is to have a clear view of what you stand for and be able to say it, and to stand behind it no matter what.
Sam: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Edwards: Do you have any more questions?
Me: [meekly] I have kind of a silly question. During the campaign season I kept wondering, do people ever mix you up with the crazy Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards?
Edwards: Yeah, I was asked... [grinning] I had a guy ask me the other day, I can't remember where I was...? about that.
David Ginsberg: (inaudible) the psychic.
Edwards: The psychic! The psychic, the psychic I heard about, I heard, right after we got in...
Me: Oh right, right! Forgot about him...
Edwards: And then, ah, recently I got asked about Jonathan Edwards. I think it's the first time I'd ever been asked. So it's only happened once.
Me: [to myself mostly] So this is the second time.
Edwards: [smiling] Now it's the second time.
Sam: Do you have any ideas of who's going to be indicted this week?
Edwards: [relaxed now and still smiling, but still not a psychic] I don't! I can't tell, it'd be a pure guess. Well thank you guys, anything else you wanna ask?
Me: Ah, any message you've got for the blogs? Especially our faith and politics community blog.
Edwards: Well, my message to blogs is, it's enormously important as a vehicle for people to engage in dialogue, and it's why I've been blogging, including video blogs, it's why I've been doing podcasting, it's because this is a great way for people to have access to either leaders or potential leaders, and be able to communicate their ideas. I mean, this is a place where you can have an actual conversation.
Edwards: ...about what matters. So I think the blogs are hugely important.
Me: They let people feel engaged rather than just being consumers of media.
Edwards: [warmly] Exactly, exactly. And there's, there's a back and forth.
Me: From the comfort of your own home.
David: Thanks guys.
Me: [realizing time is more than up, but bashfully proffering a printout I've brought with info on Street Prophets] People wanted me to invite you to our blog... you may not want to, but here's the information...
Edwards: Okay, thank you, okay terrific. No, we may do it!
Me: We'd love it.
Whewwwwww. Sam had him sign something, and I asked, apologizing that I knew he was supposed to be someplace, if we could get pictures with him and he said sure! cheerily. He was very gracious. Then David got him out to the waiting car in a flash.
Sam looked at me with wide eyes and said "that was intense."
Yep, it was an adventure!
I could retouch my eyes if I felt like it.
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