Columbia, South Carolina.
It was a good day for John Edwards. The candidate didn’t march with the throng from Zion Baptist Church to the Statehouse Grounds for the King Day rally, sponsored for the past few years by the NAACP. Obama was the only hopeful in Saturday’s primary making that trek. And when Edwards took the platform with Obama, the cheers in the crowd of about 3,000 or so were all for the latter. It was, for this occasion particularly, a masterstroke that the line that Obama attached to the campaign back in Iowa, “Fired Up, Ready to Go!”, is an old fight slogan of the NAACP. So throughout the proceedings, throughout the march beforehand, the cry arose, “Fired Up!” and then, from somewhere behind or beside, the response, “Ready to Go!” Even Clinton supporters were chanting it, until they caught themselves. Hillary Clinton herself made a belated solo entrance into the rally after the fiery benediction (“calling ourselves liberators, we rain steel and fire upon civilians,” the only antiwar speech of the day), after “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, after one or two other speakers calculated, it seemed, to rouse a cheer and photo opportunity that was hers alone. She did get an enthusiastic welcome. It would be the last such cheer she got that morning.
It was a good day for Edwards because no one expected anything from him. Just as it was a good night for him later, at the debate in Myrtle Beach, when the snarls between Hillary and Obama made him a bystander, until he broke in to remind people that the system is rigged against the poor and the black and the jobless, that some people live in shacks and go to bed wearing all their clothes against the cold in America, and there are worse funders to be beholden to than trial lawyers.
Everyone expected something from Obama at the King Day rally. “Take twenty minutes,” someone in the crowd shouted out just before he began speaking and after the master of ceremonies announced the ten-minute limit on each candidate. Little girls bundled up against the chill jumped and clapped. “Obama! Obama!” One day, if his ambitions succeed, their parents will remind them of the day. College kids leapt up with their homemade signs. “No Clinton Dynasty,” one of them read. Some fraternity brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha, King’s old fraternity, who’ve been running a voter awareness campaign at USC, Aiken, joked among each other confidently. Older people shouted out, “Preach, brother” as he spoke of “the moral deficit in America, a deficit of empathy”; and “Go ahead” or “Say it” as he said, “You know, I talk a lot about hope. Some people say, ‘He’s a hope monger, his head’s in the clouds. But I tell you, I have to be hopeful to be standing here today. I didn’t come from power or privilege. I was raised by a single mother” As if to say, I am one of you. It was all he had to say, this candidate who for so long has seemed to be either running away from, or lecturing, or taking for granted his most obvious base. And when he finished people were shouting, “We want more!”
Edwards came to the microphone like a guest at the party everyone is polite to, while inwardly yearning for him to move along. “I was born in South Carolina,” he began, and as he proceeded something happened in the crowd. That impatience evaporated. Tolerant listeners keened forward. Edwards didn’t tell the tear-stained tale about his father and the mill and how when he was just a little bitty baby he was poor and knew what hard work meant. He talked as a Southern white man who shared a bitter history with Southern blacks, with the difference that he’d also known the shame, even as that white millworker’s son, of being part of the crowd that got what they did, even if it was not all that much, at the other crowd’s expense. He didn’t say it so much as convey it, in his evident odd joy in the moment of being the only white guy standing among the candidates, in the refrain he borrowed from Martin Luther King’s speech against the Vietnam War. “Silence is a betrayal,” he said, quoting King, and it seemed to come from somewhere deep, from that same pool of memories where everything wasn’t always all just hard work and noble persistence among the whites of his youth.
I’d heard Edwards give a version of this speech on King Day a year ago at Riverside Church in New York, where King made his famous denunciation of the war, and then it was flat. Here it was felt, urgent, maybe for no other reason than that Edwards is going for broke here. If he can’t win or do very well in his natal state, he is finished. So he listed all the reasons people cannot stand silent war and poverty and union busting; payday lenders, lousy schools and lousy health care, and the outrageous mountains of wealth towering above outrageous poverty. He talked as a homeboy, and when he finished he was rewarded with cheers for a homeboy.
Hillary came next, and though her supporters dutifully waved their unalluring Kelly green and white “Clinton Country” signs, it was now as if the crowd wanted her to move along. Indeed, nothing she said resonated the way her two predecessors’ words did. She said all the right things, one of the Alpha men said to me, all the things her team might have expected people wanted to hear, and maybe that was the problem. “I don’t trust it,” he said. “She didn’t move me.” When she finished, the response from the crowd was stunningly subdued. You’d hardly think she was the front-runner, the sure bet, wife of “America’s first black president.”
As the crowd departed Obama was on a crest, among them at least. It would be a few hours before his jaw-dropping remark at the debate about having to see how Bill Clinton danced before he could truly decide what he thought of Toni Morrison’s famous characterization of Bill an absurd answer to an absurd question about an absurd notion, which may be the only charitable explanation. That or the fact that Obama really has more an immigrant’s history than a native’s one. The shorthand just doesn’t register the way it does with someone who has come up in black or white America — another instance where there really does seem to be a difference between an African-American and a black American. It would be hours before, by the usual rules of politics, Edwards won the debate in Myrtle Beach. His only hope in the primary has always been to capitalize on Clinton and Obama’s fight with each other and their fight over the black vote, to draw away enough of that vote to deny anyone the supermajority they’d need to win, and to clean up among white people, mainly men, who, for reasons good or ill, find the other two disagreeable. It’s a long shot, but people left the Statehouse grounds saying Edwards had surprised them. That was victory for one day.
JoANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org