Sen. John Edwards ended his bid to be president of the United States this week. For me, it ended one of the most incredible and rewarding experiences of my life.
En route from Edwards home town of Raleigh, N.C., to my home in New York City, I can't help but reminisce about all the places I traveled, the people I encountered, the friendships I developed and, most importantly, the great lessons I learned. The past three months have taught me more about myself and the people of America than my previous 31 years of existence.
From Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Wisconsin, a caravan of staff and reporters crisscrossed the country with the Edwards campaign. When the group was small we all huddled in a van; when the group expanded we upgraded to a bus; and eventually we were styling on a 737 charter. All across America I ate warm chocolate chip cookies in people's homes, met with veterans at VFW halls, spoke to ambitious students at college campuses, interacted with the elderly at senior centers and drank coffee with husbands and wives at diners. For a girl who spent my whole life on the East Coast (particularly New York City), I had the great privilege to hear, feel and see what this country is all about.
My experience began in the fall of 2003. I knew that CBS would be sending out reporters to cover the candidates. Like I do so many times, I said to myself, "I have to do this." Within minutes of getting an email saying "the campaign unit is up and I running," I called Mary Murphy and asked if she had two minutes to talk to me. Luckily she said yes, and without hesitation, I ran upstairs. We spoke briefly, and when I walked away, again I thought, "I have to do this." As persistence and luck would have it, a few days later Mary was looking for someone to cover Sen. John Edwards from North Carolina.
"Sen. Edwards," I thought to myself. "I'll definitely be home soon."
I packed my bags and in early December met up with the campaign. While at first I was a little nervous and intimidated, both the staff and the other reporters welcomed me with open arms. Within days, we were sharing stories about our families, our friends, our lovers, everything and anything that you could imagine. We literally were together 24/7, and for a few months, they became my on-the-road family. Eating, drinking, laughing, complaining, you name it and we did it.
While Edwards started out relatively unknown, after his second-place finish in Iowa he started to get more and more attention. The country starting to focus on the trial lawyer from the South, and as an off-air reporter, I saw the transformation of his campaign. As he gained popularity, each day I would think to myself, "Wow, I can't believe this is happening." I thought I was being assigned to the guy at the back of the back, and in time he became one of the two last men standing.
In addition to the professional experience of being the eyes and ears for CBS News, I also feel fortunate to have gotten to know Edwards on a personal level. We talked to him during the campaign about everything from being lawyers to our accents, eating habits, exercising regiments and families to his same old, same old stump speech to the other reporters who grilled him with questions. He was running for president but he was also a regular guy. As a husband and a father, he shared with us some personal stories that helped us see him in a unique and different light.
The one thing that Edwards rarely mentioned was son Wade, who died at the age of 16 in 1996. While he wore Wade's Outward Bound pin on his suit lapel every day, he never talked about him on the stump and rarely talked about him off the record. Edwards has said in the past that Wade's death is what convinced him to go into politics, but most people think that he didn't want to exploit his death by talking about it on the campaign trail.
This actually taught me the most about Edwards. He used his biography (as the son of a mill worker) to help define his campaign, but the chapter in his life that he chooses to omit may actually be the most telling of all.
"Like most Americans, in my life, I have learned two great lessons," Edwards said. "One, that there will always be heartache and struggle; and two, that people of strong will can make a difference. One lesson is sad and the other is inspiring. And what makes us Americans is that we choose to be inspired."
So as I sign off, I, Alison Jill Schwartz, have been inspired.