Looking in our internal database for something entirely unrelated (what I might have written in the past about Bill Clinton's Deficit Reduction Act of 1993, actually) I ran across a column from 2003 that I had forgotten about. It struck me as interesting for two reasons:
- It's an unfortunate fact that if you search for "Brad Warthen" on the Web — I did it several days ago as a way of trying out the Grokker search engine — you run across a lot of stuff about a certain column I wrote in 2007 about John Edwards. That column drew 190,000 page views to thestate.com within the first week (not to the blog version — unfortunately, since the blog version was better). If you recall, it was about three incidents that, taken together, had persuaded me that John Edwards was a "phony." I didn't think all that much of the column when I wrote it, but it looks like it's going to dog me forever in what we once called Cyberspace. Anyway, this previous, forgotten column was the first time I had written about one of those incidents.
- Criticizing John Edwards was not the point of the column. Oh, I was fairly dismissive of him; he never impressed me all that much. But the point was to criticize some young Republican protesters who had come to try to disrupt his campaign event.
Anyway, it's a mildly interesting footnote to something that caused a lot of hoo-hah, so I share it.
You'll note that I mention the very moment I later cited in the "Phony" column, and call Edwards on it for its general bogusness, which shows even then what an impression it made on me. Of course, I don't zero in on it quite as harshly as I did later, and the reason why is fairly obvious: The other two incidents had not yet happened, so while I had serious doubts about him, and especially about his populism, I had not yet put it all together and made up my mind fully about John Edwards. My impression had not yet, as I later wrote, "been reinforced with steel girders."
Anyway, here's the forgotten column:
State, The (Columbia, SC) – Sunday, September 21, 2003
Author: BRAD WARTHEN Editorial Page Editor
I DON'T GET protesters.
I'm not talking about political debate, or dissent, or seeking redress of grievances. Those things are part of what our country's all about. They're what my job's all about. We definitely don't want to curtail any of that.
And I believe that there are rare cases when taking to the streets – in an orderly, peaceful manner – is perfectly justifiable, even imperative. Laws would not have changed in the United States if not for the forceful, nonviolent witness of Martin Luther King and thousands of others.
What throws me is people who whip up signs and take to the streets at the slightest provocation – or no provocation at all.
I've expressed my puzzlement about such behavior at the dinner table, only to have one of my children make the very good point that of course I don't understand; I don't have to take to the streets because I have my own bully pulpit on these pages. True enough. But everyone has available more constructive means of political expression than making a public spectacle of themselves.
Even revolutions can be conducted with dignity. Compare John and Samuel Adams. John, who started as an unremarkable farmer and lawyer from Braintree, Mass., persuaded the Continental Congress to formally declare independence. Cousin Samuel, by contrast, preferred whipping up mobs in the streets of Boston. Who accomplished more? I would say John.
All of this is on my mind because I went to hear John Edwards announce his candidacy at the Russell House Tuesday. What did I see when I was there?
Well, a lot of silliness, mostly. But it was to be expected. There are few things more unbecoming than a millionaire trial lawyer presenting himself to a crowd as the ultimate populist. Huey Long could pull it off; he had the common touch. So did George Wallace. But John Edwards is one of those "sleek-headed" men that Shakespeare wrote of in Julius Caesar. He may be lean, but he hath not the hungry look. Mr. Edwards is decidedly lacking in rough edges. Not even age can stick to him.
His entrance was predictably corny. Other speakers had unobtrusively climbed the back steps onto the platform. Mr. Edwards snuck around to the back of the crowd, then leaped out of his hiding place with a huge grin and his hand out, looking for all the world like he was surprised to find himself among all these supporters. He hand-shook his way through the audience to the podium, a la Bill Clinton , thereby signifying that he comes "from the people." Watch for that shot in upcoming TV commercials.
His speech was laced with populist non-sequiturs. For instance, he went way over the top exhibiting his incredulity at Bush's "jobless recovery," chuckling with his audience at such an oxymoron – as though the current administration had invented the term. (A computer scan found the phrase 641 times in major news sources during calendar year 1993 ; so much for novelty.)
Despite all that, I came away from the event with greater sympathy for the Edwards campaign than I might have had otherwise. That's because he and his supporters seemed so wise, thoughtful, mature and dignified – by comparison to the protesters.
These were, I assume, members of the University of South Carolina chapter of College Republicans, based on that group's stated intention to be there in force. I suppose I could have confirmed that by asking them, but like most of the folks there – Edwards backers and disinterested observers alike – I tried to ignore them. It wasn't easy. When one speaker praised Mr. Edwards, they would yell, "Bush!" When another said Elizabeth Edwards would be a fine first lady, they hollered "Laura!" The signs they carried were equally subtle. Some called the candidate an "ambulance chaser." Two were held side by side: One said "Edwards is liberal"; the other, "S.C. is not." Deep stuff. It apparently didn't occur to them that conservative people don't act this way.
They settled down noticeably when Mrs. Edwards politely called for a display of "good Southern manners." But the heckling resumed when her husband started speaking. I had made the mistake of standing near the back of the crowd, and some of the young Republicans took up position behind me. Therefore, when the candidate noted yet again that he was born in Seneca, South Carolina, and a heckler hollered a sarcastic "No kidding," it was right into my ear. I was similarly well situated to get the full brunt when someone started shouting some of Mr. Edwards' more well-worn stump speech lines along with him.
What makes people behave this way? Yes, they were young; I understand that. But why is it that political dialogue has degenerated to the point that even young people find it acceptable to act like this?
Agree with him or not, John Edwards is running for president of the United States. Why can't people just let the man have his say? What compels them to rush out into public and show their fannies this way?
Not that anyone did that literally, although there was this one young man off to the right of me who did lift his shirt to flash his ample belly at the rostrum. I have no idea what that was about. Maybe he had something written there; I didn't look that closely.
What I did see was the huge, cherubic grin on his affable face. He was having a whale of a good time. I suppose I should be glad that someone was.
Write to Mr. Warthen at P.O. Box 1333, Columbia, S.C. 29202, or firstname.lastname@example.org.