Edwards's Courtroom Appeal
In Carefully Crafted Address, Candidate Draws on Strengths That Worked for Him as a Lawyer
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page A25
BOSTON, July 28 -- John F. Kerry hired a lawyer when he hired his running mate, and Wednesday night John Edwards reached for the same strengths that made him famous in North Carolina courtrooms. With a deceptively informal style, he delivered a tightly argued, intensely rehearsed, unabashedly emotional appeal for his client to a jury of voters across the nation.
Edwards represents ticket balance in the old-fashioned tradition, but for distinctly modern reasons. More important than geographical balance, the Yankee and the southerner, or ideological balance -- their differences are at the margins -- is Edwards's ability to speak in the language of life stories and empathy that contemporary politics rewards. It is a style of argument at which Kerry -- Edwards referred to his Senate colleague simply as "John" -- has rarely excelled.
In invoking Kerry's now-familiar Vietnam history as the commander of a Navy Swift boat, Edwards seized on what he evidently regarded as the most dramatic chapter of the presidential candidate's life, rather than the most original. "If you have any question about what he's made of," he said, "just spend three minutes with the men who served with him then and who stand with him now. . . . They saw up close what he's made of."
Edwards told reporters he went through 30 drafts of his speech on yellow legal pads. That preparation suggests the effort by which Edwards's conversational style -- the easy-flowing cadences and natural pauses -- is produced, especially in light of the fact that much of what he said is material he has delivered countless times before.
Much of his address was the latest version of the "two Americas" speech that thrilled many Democratic audiences during the primaries last winter. "Because the truth is, we still live in a country where there are two different Americas: one for all those people who have lived the American dream and don't have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggle to make ends meet every single day.
"It doesn't have to be that way," Edwards said, in one of the stump speech's signature refrains.
He also introduced a new line that -- judging by the posters Democrats had printed up in advance -- he wants to make a new standard. "Hope is on the way!" Edwards boomed, leading the FleetCenter crowd in a chant.
Some Democrats said Edwards's delivery was not as vibrant as it often was last winter and probably did not turn heads to quite the same degree that keynote speaker Barack Obama, a Senate hopeful from Illinois, did on Tuesday night. Even so, the fact that he has a practiced stump speech to rely on may be an advantage over the top of the ticket. Kerry never did settle on a standard text, meaning he will be fashioning -- and delivering -- his rhetorical lines from something more like scratch.
Edwards's debut before a nationally televised audience served notice that he does not intend to embrace one of the historic roles of vice presidential candidates -- delivering the most brutal partisan chops. Edwards's speech did not mention either President Bush or Vice President Cheney.
The most negative part of the speech was where he accused the Republicans of being negative. "Aren't you sick of it?" he asked. "They are doing all they can to take this campaign for the highest office in the land down the lowest possible road."
As Republicans are quick to note, Kerry and his surrogates have hardly eschewed attacks on Bush. But Edwards maintained the choice was between "the tired old, hateful, negative politics of the past" and "the politics of hope, the politics of what's possible."
While touting Kerry's biography and values, Edwards also used the largest television audience he has ever faced to present his own in characteristically personal terms. He was introduced by his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who in turn was introduced by their eldest daughter, Cate, 22. When he took the podium, Edwards introduced his parents, including his father, whose career working in a now-shuttered textile mill the freshman senator cited many times before Democrats during Edwards's time on the presidential trail. He recalled the "lint in their hair" and "grease on their faces."
Edwards, whose victories as a trial lawyer made him a wealthy man, said his own story as the first in his family to attend college makes him a metaphor for the kind of opportunity that Democrats will fight to expand.
One of the lines that resonated most in the convention hall was an old favorite from last winter, in which Edwards promises to talk about the challenge of race relations not just before black audiences but "everywhere."
"Everywhere! Everywhere! Everywhere!" cheered the crowd.
One place where Edwards did not regularly tread as a presidential candidate merited a large section of this speech. In an interview with CBS News before the speech, Edwards said one quality he thinks Americans don't know about him is the "toughness inside me."
He sought to signal resolve by telling the audience he had a message for terrorists: "You cannot run, you cannot hide. We will destroy you."
That comment came on a night when Democrats put a heavy emphasis on national security, an issue on which the party has been vulnerable with many voters in recent decades. Here, too, convention planners concluded that life story was the most effective way of communicating policy.
A campaign video featured endorsements from a parade of retired flag officers, including Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a former presidential candidate, and former Air Force chief of staff Merrill A. McPeak.
The generals and admirals said Bush has overstretched armed forces with the Iraq war; McPeak asserted, "We're now producing terrorists a lot faster than we're killing them."
The film preceded a convention speech by retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, who recalled a childhood in Poland shadowed by World War II, as well as his own combat service in Vietnam. "I know about the horror of war and thus join with others like John Kerry in believing that we must go to war only when all other efforts to resolve the threat to us have been exhausted. And only then, when going to war becomes absolutely necessary, then to go with full resolve and to use force decisively. But we should never go to war without a comprehensive plan for how to secure the peace once military victory has been won."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company