A Double For Johnny 'Two Americas'

Vice presidential candidate John Edwards speaks to delegates at the Democratic National Convention - where an enormous screen made sure all could see him as he spoke - on Wednesday, July 28, 2004, in Boston.
This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

John Edwards is one of a handful of politicians who can knock it out of the park in a big stadium. That's why he was drafted.

He has just two at-bats in this game. His convention speech was the first (and least important). From my perch in TV-land, I'm not scoring it a four bagger. From a man with this much talent and charisma, it was a disappointment. Maybe a double.

The next at-bat will come in October when Luke Edwards will battle Darth Cheney to the death in debate. More people will watch. It will be closer to the election. It's the more significant at-bat.

Caveat: I am probably tone-deaf when it comes to spotting popular oratory. The charms of speeches by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were lost on me.

But to me the defining issue and marker of these times is a day: September 11, 2001. In a great national moment, on a great stage, a great politician stakes a claim. Edwards didn't.

His speech ran roughly 3,570 words. September 11 didn't come until approximately 2,000 words in. And then he skated over this enormous ice. "We share the profound sadness for the nearly three thousand lives lost," Edwards said. "As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I know that we have to do more to fight terrorism and protect our country. And we can do that." I'm sorry, but this is 9/11-lite.

Edwards, in my book, failed to convey an appreciation of the threat the nation faces, a seriousness of purpose on this biggest of issues. Here's Edwards on al Qaeda: "And we will have one clear unmistakable message for al Qaeda and the rest of these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you." A bland blend of Clinton Eastwood and George W. Bush.

To be fair, Edwards' prime assignment was to sell John Kerry as a commander-in-chief: well-trained and steeled for that job.

Edwards did this with a hammer, repeatedly. "Decisive. Strong. Aren't these the traits you want in a commander-in-chief?" "So when a man volunteers to serve his country, and puts his life on the line for others - that's a man who represents real American values." "Like all of those brave men and women, John put his life on the line for our country."

But this felt more like hypnotism than persuasion. A guy who can give a speech like Edwards should not rely on subliminal mantras in what is surely the forum of a lifetime.

Edwards did, in his positively negative way, remind us that Kerry has been shot at and Bush hasn't and that makes Kerry better suited to be commander-in-chief. "They [the troops] deserve a president who understands that on the most personal level what they have gone through - what they have given, and what they have given up, for their country," he said.

Great point.

But Edwards oddly did not talk about his ticket's position that Bush made a dishonest case for the war. I don't understand why; it's a rather big issue. Too transparently negative, I suppose.

Edwards is famous for his "Two Americas" speech. It's a good speech and points to many truths with empathy and eloquence. Good rhetoric is scarce and this was good stuff.

But the danger of becoming a Johnny Two-Note materialized to a degree as Edwards addressed the delegates.

The picture he painted was so glum in parts that it made his natural optimism and cheer seem corny and hollow. "Things are really, really awful but I'm the hope guy," seemed to be his message. The second half of that formula was as tinny as Bush-speak.

And there was a ton of melodramatic dourness in the speech of this happy warrior.

Hard times example: "You don't need me to explain it to you, you know: you can't save any money, can you? Takes every dime you make just to pay your bills, and you know what happens if something goes wrong - a child gets sick, somebody gets laid off, or there's a financial problem - you go right off the cliff."

What a downer. A trite downer, at that.

This stuff paved the way for his big chorus: "Hope is on the way." As in: "When your neighbor calls you and says that her daughter has worked hard and wants to go to college - you tell her... hope is on the way."

On television, it didn't feel like dance music. It felt contrived.
And Edwards did not connect his greatest asset – a well-communicated empathy for the working poor and struggling – to the case against the sitting president.

Some pluses: Edwards did so well in the primaries partly because he stayed out of the gutter. He stayed true to that and avoided stepping into the attack dog role which is traditionally taken on by the vice presidential candidate.

Edwards also displayed a pleasing lack of narcissism and squelched the autobiographical impulse. As always, he didn't mention his son's death.

Overall, I doubt much happened in the undecided column on this night.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer