By Bill Boyarsky
John Edwards’ words at the last Iowa Democratic debate sounded so out of tune with this year’s campaign discourse—and so sensible and important—that the man might as well have been campaigning on another planet.
“Somewhere in America tonight,” he said, “a child will go to bed hungry. Somewhere in America tonight, a family will have to go to the emergency room and beg for health care for a sick child. Somewhere in America today a father who has worked for 30 or 40 years to support his family will lose his job.” [To see the December debate, in multiple parts, go to YouTube.com and search on “Iowa Democratic debate.”]
His talk of hunger, poor medical care and working people’s fear of sudden middle-age unemployment provided a bracing touch of reality in a campaign where the media are stubbornly occupied with matters irrelevant to American life: Is Hillary too blind to accept the journalistic verdict that her campaign is falling apart? Did Obama pine for the presidency in kindergarten ? What about that dope smoking as a teenager? How about these Mormons and Mitt Romney? Did Joseph Smith really receive God’s word in upper New York state, just as Moses did on Mount Sinai?
The real question is why so few reporters were paying attention to what Edwards had to say about the economy, health care and job insecurity in a nation where economic conditions have become a prime concern.
I focused on what Edwards had to say as I prepared to take off for Iowa to cover the campaign. I talked to people who had been observing the campaign coverage to see if they shared my outrage at a media seemingly intent on trivializing the election.
Thomas B. Edsall, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism who has shifted to the online world as political editor of The Huffington Post after a long and distinguished career at The Washington Post, told me, “Newspapers have lost the capacity to voice outrage and in its place have adopted weaker tools.”
But outrage appears to be the wrong tone for the Iowa caucuses, whose main function is to serve as sort of a quarter pole in the presidential campaign horse race and which are held in a state untypical of the highly populated urban and suburban centers where most Americans live.
That impression was reinforced the day before the Democratic debate when moderator Carolyn Washburn opened the Republican debate by announcing: “We’re going to focus on issues Iowans say they want to know more about. We won’t talk a lot about issues like Iraq or immigration. They are important issues no doubt but Iowans say they know where the candidates are coming from on those.”
My first reaction as I watched her on television was to marvel at Washburn’s sense of entitlement. What qualifies her and her colleagues to place Iraq and immigration practically off limits when the candidates have yet to plumb the depths of these two extremely complex subjects?
My reaction was reinforced the next morning when The New York Times’ Monica Davey reported from the small town of Storm Lake, Iowa, where immigrants have found jobs at Tyson Meat Packing and other places. She wrote that almost all of the people she interviewed “said they considered immigration policy at or near the top of their lists of concerns. ...”
Such immigration from Mexico and Central and South America is driven by homeland poverty and lack of opportunity. These are conditions related to the impact of the new and heartless global economy on jobs in places as far apart as Asia, Mexico and Iowa. As Edwards put it earlier this month: “Trade deals can create jobs, but they can also cost us jobs. They can bring down prices, but they can also hold down wages. The question I will ask about each trade deal is simple: All things considered, does it make most regular families better off or not?”
He was speaking about job losses such as the ones Washburn’s own paper, the Des Moines Register, reported on in October when reporter William Ryberg covered the closing of the Maytag appliance plant by the new owner, global power Whirlpool: “Iowa history was written in tears, hugs and goodbyes Thursday as the Maytag washer and dryer factory ended production in Newton. The town of 15,000 was home to the Maytag brand for 114 years.”
I don’t see these tears, hugs and goodbyes in much of the campaign coverage.
In New York recently, I took the subway out to Columbia to interview Megan Garber, part of the Columbia Journalism Review’s useful daily online review of campaign coverage, Campaign Desk. Garber, 27, grew up in Monterey, Calif., graduated from Princeton and taught English for a year in Vietnam before going to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This year she has a fellowship writing for the journalism school’s magazine and Web site.
Garber said that reporting about Edwards “also requires reporting about these multidimensional problems” associated with poverty. “Poverty,” she said, is a very difficult thing to report.”
Based on her reading of campaign coverage, Garber sees a strain of cynicism in the way the press corps views Edwards. “The consensus was that he was too rich to be advocating for the poor, a pretty boy. All that attention to his haircut.”
But a cynical press doesn’t dwell on how he got rich. His wealth was earned in courtrooms as a plaintiff’s attorney, fighting for those abused by corporations, insurers, physicians and others.
I wondered what would have happened to Robert F. Kennedy in the hands of today’s reporters. He was rich. He was handsome. His father made the family fortune in a rough and tough way. Bob Kennedy would have been made to look conniving by the irony of 21st-century political journalism.
Instead, the journalists covering Kennedy in 1968 accepted him for what he was—a man shaped by tragedy who had a remarkable empathy with the nation’s downtrodden.
Despite his good haircut, he probably would have been elected president if it hadn’t been for an assassin. If Edwards loses the nomination, I hope it is because he failed to sell his ideas rather than because of damage inflicted by stories about his wealth and haircut.
AP photo / Matthew Putney
Above the fray?: While certain other Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were busy quibbling and apologizing in recent days, John Edwards talked some sense in Iowa, according to Boyarsky.