United States

Edwards launches “poverty tour”; have-mores launch the lie machine

John Edwards kicked off Poverty Tour 2007 today.

His opponents and a lot of media people who’d know better if they’d studied a little harder in school will be countering with the even higher profile Idiots and Liars Tour, so brace yourself for all kinds of stupid. You’re going to keep hearing about $400 haircuts. You’re going to hear about new mansions. You’ll hear about “lavish spending.” You’re going to hear lots of talk where the words “slick” and “lawyer” are used in close proximity.

Pay attention: every time you do, somebody is lying to you.

In case you missed it, Democratic Presidential hopeful Edwards, a North Carolinian who’s behind Obama and Clinton in both the polls and fund-raising, is building his campaign around the theme of ending poverty (or at least putting a dent in it), a theme that seems to piss off just about everybody except the extremely impoverished. All’s fair in love and war and politics, of course, and we can expect Hillary (whose campaign has reportedly been testing the “$400 haircut” message with potential voters) and even Obama to take the cheap shot if they feel they need to, and if Sunshine Johnny somehow wins the nomination the gods only know what his GOP opponents will manufacture. Whatever it takes to win.

But in the interest of making sure that we understand what’s really going on, I want to make a few points.

First, about those haircuts. Presidential candidates can’t just waltz into Fantastic Sam’s like the rest of us (well, the rest of you – I don’t have any hair left to cut). They walk around with sizeable staffs and significant Secret Service contingents, which means that they either have to bring a barber in or shut down the shop for a couple hours. You can’t do either for $20. If you knew the truth about haute political coiffeur, you’d discover that John’s haircut probably cost no more than any other candidate’s.

Also, what precisely is wrong with a rich guy paying large for a service? The person cutting the hair is probably not rich, so that $400 is likely going to somebody who needs it more than John does. This is a good thing. From where I stand, it would be a tremendous thing if all rich people started getting more expensive haircuts. Going into restaurants and overtipping. Buying the most expensive bicycle in the shop when they they really only need one of the cheap ones. Hiring employees and paying them twice their market value.

No, you’re a bad person when you have all the money in the world and cheap those around you to death. So when people start laying that haircut shizzle on you, look hard at what they stand to gain from the lie.

Second, let’s look at the “slick lawyer” lie. I hate litigious ambulance chasers as bad as the next guy, but who exactly stands to profit by a smackdown on lawyers like John Boy? Well, he made a lot of money suing corporations. And while nobody talks about it, every goddamned one of those corps was represented by an army of slick lawyers of their own. Those slick lawyers acted in service to who? Ah – the have-mores. The corporate elites. Edwards and lawyers like him represent people who often (not always, to be sure, but often) have legitimate grievances against large corporate interests who have done them serious harm.

Put it this way – would you really want to face a world where there weren’t guys like John Edwards but there were companies like Halliburton, Enron, Adelphia, Qwest, WorldCom and Tyco being run by robbers and pillagers like Dick Cheney, Joe Nacchio, the Rigas crime family, Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Dennis Koslowski and Andrew Fastow?

When you hear one of Edwards’ detractors framing him as a slick lawyer, stop and ask yourself the real question – what does this person stand to gain by disempowering non-corporate litigators while doing nothing about the corporate side?

Third, about that “lavish” lifestyle. So Hillary and Barack and Rudy and Mitt and Lobbyin’ Fred live like sharecroppers? Are you stupid?

Oh, wait – it’s not that he’s rich, it’s that he’s a hypocrite. Because he’s rich but he wants to run on helping the poor. I get it. So let’s be clear about some basic realities here.

  • Class disparity is an inherent function of human civilization. You have a nation, you’re going to have powerful and powerless, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, upperclass and underclass, etc.
  • In America, only the rich get to run for President. Well, only the rich get anywhere near the point where they have a chance – put it that way. There are probably no more than five or six people who have a legit shot at the White House right now, and all of them are doing okay for themselves.
  • Short of a shooting revolution, the poor are not going to overcome their poverty without the help of folks up the economic food chain. And frankly, they can’t even afford the hardware to win the shooting war, either.
  • All this adds up to a basic fact: this election will be contested by rich people who care about poverty and rich people who don’t. Which is worse – using your resources and influence to work for the poor or living well and telling the poor to fuck themselves?

But wait – do we really believe that Edwards cares about the poor? That’s a better question, but again, let’s consider some facts.

Edwards wasn’t born with cash – “his father was a mill worker and he was the first child in his family to go to college.” I was raised by a mechanic and was the first person in my family to get a college degree, too, so I have a little insight into what this might mean. Having parents who worked in a mill in NC (and I’ll gladly defer to my S&R colleague Jim Booth, who was a mill worker’s son in NC, for a more informed perspective on this issue) meant not only that you didn’t have a lot of money, it meant that you didn’t have connections. You weren’t part of the old boy network and you were on the outside of the “good old American know-who” dynamic that determines who gets a shot and who doesn’t, especially in the South. I know this world, I know the invisible class barriers that working class whites face in North Carolina because I grew up working class there, too.

Edwards is that most cherished of American mythological creatures, the self-made man. He actually did work his way up from modest means. Rags-to-riches. American Dream. All those things we say make us great.

But when push comes to shove, those with power, money and influence tend to keep it close – they do not generally benefit from sharing with the previously unempowered. A significant number of our fellow citizens with money made it the old-fashioned way – they inherited it. And while creating opportunity for all makes for great campaign rhetoric, it’s not the sort of thing you see the hereditary have-mores throwing themselves into with a lot of verve.

Edwards is an outsider, and there’s not much the establishment likes less than uppity lower-class trash trying to shoehorn their way into the country club. Why? Well, you can trust people like you. If another guy grew up a fortunate son just like you did you have things in common. You share cultural experiences. He’s one of you. But if he’s one of them, you have to deal with something you don’t understand and can’t count on. Hell, what if the crazy bastard wants to, you know, start helping the poor? How is that good for you, exactly?

Am I being inflammatory? Maybe. Am I painting with an awfully broad brush? No doubt – you can’t talk about class factors house to house. But tell you what – prove me wrong. And you won’t do that by providing me with a couple nice exceptions, because for every Horatio Alger story you show me I’m going to respond with a few million hard examples of folks who didn’t manage to overcome their modest means. Life is a 100-yard dash and your chances of crossing the finish line first are greatly enhanced if you begin the race with a 90-yard head start. You may like the rhetorical flourish of the stirring example, but I’m a lot more persuaded by the 99.9% rule than I am the .1% exception.

I take a lot of this cynical rhetoric about Edwards for what it is, and yeah, I take it personally. Unless you were born rich, powerful and amoral you might ought to think about what this means for you, too.

34 replies »


    Seriously, this is brilliant and needed to be said. Edwards is hitting people where it hurts–forcing them to confront their class biases and the uncomfortable truths that people would just rather not talk about the widening gyre.

    That’s why, even though he’s third behind Clinton and Obama, there’s such a concerted hit squad on him. Obama is, for all his charisma and eloquence, an image-based candidate: The Great Conciliator. Clinton is the political and financial juggernaut, always calculating and playing the influence game. The media machine understands this.

    Edwards is an anomaly–a well-to-do Southern white man who cares about poverty and inequality? He HAS to be full of shit!

    Edwards isn’t perfect by any means, but his very imperfections shine a brutal light on the ugly biases of the rich and their enablers in the media empire.

    Preach on, brother man.

  2. I cannot even say for sure that Edwards would be the best President, although at this stage of the game I think that’s true. I may be convinced that I’m wrong. This isn’t about that. It’s about something that Americans don’t talk about enough, and if he does nothing else, Edwards will be a hero if he forces us to face up to our invisible class barriers in productive ways.

  3. Amen, brother Sam! Go tell it on the mountain! My sense is that Edwards would do more to reduce inequality than any other major candidate. How about an Edwards-Obama ticket?

  4. I think the ticket that the GOP would have a hellacious time dealing with would be Edwards/Richardson. But what do I know. I’d mainly just like to see a conversation with a sprinkle more honesty in it, you know?

  5. I love the haircut red herring. “Millions are below the poverty line” “Look over there! He’s got a 400.00 haircut”

    Who gives a good god damn how much his haircut cost.

    Address what he said. Address those working poor.

    I’m so tired of the “look! Elvis!” debate/journalistic tactic that seems to be de riguer these days.

  6. Sam, Edwards-Richardson sounds very good to me. Richardson is more experienced and probably more knowledgeable than any other candidate about foreign relations (who else has been to North Korea?), about the politics of poverty (New Mexico has more varieties of poverty than any other state), and about where the levers of power are. And his heart’s in the right place, too.

  7. He is more apt to care for the lower middle class because that’s his family.

    He did not grow up with a sense of entitlement that even happens in small town south with the son of the local car dealership owner growing up thinking he is above the rules that apply to everyone else, and whose mother can out snoot any Rockefeller, but only when dealing with those whose bank accts are smaller than hers. I grew up in sts, I know.

    As I remember it, we had some of the same hopes for Bill Clinton.

    I suppose we pays our money and takes our chances.

    We could use some experience with decency more than experience with foreign relations.

  8. Bubba was perhaps less than we hoped for, but he was better than the alternatives we were presented with, at least.

    I don’t mistake Edwards for Mother Teresa, but I’m sick of the veiled attacks on the working class and of the media’s hare-brained complicity.

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  10. Relly enjoyed that piece. I’ll admit, I’d kind of written Edwards off (for no particular reason), but I’ll take a closer look at him again.

  11. Other issues aside, Edwards seems to be the guy with the most clearly articulated policy stances. As I say, I see him as the best guy right now – strong on the policy, ethically in a good place, and perhaps the most electable of the Big 3. Things can change, and really, this piece isn’t about whether you should vote for him or against him. In truth, it’s not so much about HIM at all.

  12. I can definitely sympathize with the media hypocrisy and the non-discussion of actual issues. I’m pretty sure that the only thing that keeps the whole system afloat is the emptiness and hot air.

    The up and down aspects of class distinction, I think, are just a symptom of a class divided more along these lines. The other things often used to define class are just the shadows on the cave wall.

  13. FDR was a rich guy who genuinely wanted to help the poor and, perhaps more importantly for the rest of us, knew that by helping the poor, he was creating the safety nets that would sustain the middle class when they hit a little down turn in their luck.

    The theme is all too familiar. Clinton allegedly had an expensive haircut while holding up other planes on the tarmack. Kerry was rich and, therefore, a hypocrite. Gore invented the internet and was a hypocrite. Hillary is shrill. Obama is, alternatively, a member of a racist church or part Muslim, etc. etc. It is more important for the Republican machine to make their base (and anyone else they can snare up) hate the Democrat than to love their guy (whomever they may decide upon). If you hate or distrust the Democrat you may not vote for the Republican, but you’re sure not to vote for the Democrat. Works every time.

    I certainly hope that Clinton or Obama is not behind this, as Smith perhaps suggests. It smells too Republican to me.

  14. Interesting post about a Democrat long shot; I can relate though I am not a Democrat. I support Ron Paul. He opposed the Iraq War from the start, unlike certain Democrats. He is honest and says what he thinks. He stands for personal liberty. I hope that Democrats not satisfied with the current front runners will consider Ron Paul even though he is a Republican. I have noticed that the talk radio personalities that bash Edwards as the “Breck Girl” (e.g., Sean Hannity) also alternate between attacking and ignoring Ron Paul. Republican insiders have excluded Ron Paul from debates only to have his supporters outnumber their audience at the same event in Iowa.

  15. I can write the script for Smug LImberger (stinking up talk radio) or Shill O’Bully (yells and interrupts people on False News). Later we’ll hear from Shark Crossdresser (tongue-in-cheek homphobic writer of books for stupied people). They’ll really fuss about erstwhile Breck Girl/faggot for being a traitor to his and their economic parasite class.

  16. I have no problem with anyone taking on poverty as an issue. But what is he planning to do about it?

    Let’s put up a list and knock-em-down or prop-em-up depending on how good the ideas are. Poverty, by the by, is not a disease or some sort of socio-economic malaise. It is a very distinct symbol of a system that isn’t functioning correctly.

    Like a heart-attack is a fantastic indication that one should consider laying off the Big Macs for a while and trying some salad. Yet we never hear about a “War on Heart-Attacks”. So what’s this thing about poverty? Poverty is the symptom. Lets discuss some causes.

  17. As the mill town boy that Sam alluded to, I suppose I should have something profound to say. As another self-made man, I can relate to John Edwards better than many. But instead I’m going to tell what I know.

    I was fortunate enough to grow up in the 1960’s when John Kennedy, another rich man who wanted to help the less fortunate was President. I was the beneficiary of Lyndon B Johnson’s social policies that put corporations into a “help the people who work for them” mode. The textile company my dad and mom both worked for (he as skilled labor, she as an office manager) made grant and scholarship money available for the children of employees who showed smarts and merit.

    There was a concerted effort BY CORPORATIONS to put education into the hands of people who might otherwise not have been able to obtain it. This was considered good business – help people get educated and some of them would come to work for you – and the goodwill you created with your practice would make employees loyal customers as well as employees. There weren’t many homes in my home town where the towels, sheets and blankets didn’t come from Fieldcrest, the home town textile giant….

    I was smart. I could earn merit. I did. As a result I was able to get scholarships and grants. Fieldcrest paid for the bulk of my undergraduate education. Because the Federal Government actually supported education in those days (in tangible ways rather than through UNFUNDED MANDATES DESIGNED TO ENRICH THE GODDAM COUSINS OF THE PRESIDENT WHO OWN TEST PUBLISHING BUSINESSES NOT TO MENTION THE PRESIDENT’S GODDAM BROTHER WHO’S IN THE TEST PREP BIZ), I was able to get money for graduate study and earn both a master’s and doctorate. I’ve had a successful career in the academy as a result.

    But by the time I earned my doctorate in the mid 1980’s (after spending time “giving back” as a public school teacher – and, of course, as a musician), the Feds had changed their practices. The Reagan administration put the squeeze on colleges and universities to stop them from offering fellowships and grants to deserving students -via the IRS who audited tens of thousands of students (including me) to make sure we weren’t “buying stereos” (remember that goddam lie?) or otherwise wasting our money on frivolous stuff like that – when most of us were living on Ramen noodles to get our degrees.

    At the same time “merger mania” and “takeovers” took off and “investment bankers” like Michael Milken and KKR (who took over one of the most benevolent corps. in history, RJ Reynolds and turned it to a money grubbing shit in five years) grabbed control of corporation after corporation. And THE FIRST “efficiency” change they made was to terminate educational assistance programs. Sure, companies still help people with tuition – IF the employee swear an oath of allegiance to the company that usually involves the blood of a first born child.

    So the “social conscience” money for education and betterment was gone. Then, to save more money, corporations who had been mainstays of communities for decades were moved to impoverished nations where manufacturing could done ON THE CHEAP. And those loyal employees with industry specific skills were left to either go back to school (to a tech school to learn another trade that might get off-shored) or to sink into poverty.

    When Edwards talks about “Two Americas” he’s talking about the America where he and I had the chance to become somebody even though our folks worked in textile mills vs. the America we have now which sees people as the Emperor saw the Roman Mob – as animals to be amused, used, and abused as necessary.

    THAT’s the Two Party system we have now – not the Republicans and Democrats but the Patricians and the Plebians. It’s “Republican” Rome. Power in the hands of a wealthy few – and they with far more weapons at their disposal to hold down us Plebians than those ancient Roman Bushes had.

    Edwards opposes that – so he’s a target. Hillary and Obama don’t – so they’re not. That Clinton and Obama would even consider using Patrician tactics against Edwards says all that needs to be said about them as candidates OF THE PEOPLE.

    Can Edwards be a complete success? No – but neither were FDR and JFK/LBJ. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support him. I’d remind you of the Sir Phillip Sidney quote:

    “Who shoots at the mid-day sun, though he be so sure he shall never hit the mark, yet as sure as he is, he shall shoot higher than he who aims at a bush.”

    What’s Edwards aiming at? What are the other presidential candidates aiming at? That’s a valid question.

    I like what Edwards is aiming at – I’m supporting him….

    It’s real easy, people.

  18. Thoughtful tag by Jim Booth. I suspect Jim tells a tale common to those of us in our 50s and 60s. My dad was the son of a subsistance farmer in SE Ky. He managed to make it through high school and college and became a public school teacher. Even with mom dying when all 4 kids were young , dad managed to raise a doctor, lawyer (me), child psychologist and successful businessman (only the doctor is a Republican). What Edwards is talking about is hope and opportunity, which the system in the 50s, 60s and 70s gave people. A kid coming out of college today generally either has well-to-do parents or a dump truck full of debt and no health care. I agree with Mr. Booth that Edwards is the best candidate at addressing this issue head on. It’s about sustaining the middle class that is our best and perhaps only bulwark against the oligarchy that the Republicans are fast establishing.

  19. Clinton allegedly had an expensive haircut while holding up other planes on the tarmack Ah, but that was in 1996 dollars, and so was only a $200 hair cut! So much more reasonable! See how Extreme this Edwards guy? I bet he even has a house with more than two bedrooms!

    Thanks for pointing out the ridiculousness of the distraction technique, and enumerating some counterarguments.

  20. Obama is actually covered by secret service (unlike Edwards, who, contrary to your article’s statement, is not), and I believe he’s still going to the same normal barber he’s had for years on the south side (not that any of this matters at all, just a point of fact)

  21. Sam, I think it is important that John Edwards is highlighting the huge problem of poverty and socio-economic inequality in America. I am so glad that someone is writing about this, as i have read little about the importance of really doing something to change this in the media.
    i have seen the video “Miniature – earth” http://www.miniature-earth.com/
    This does summarize our responsibilities in this area on a global scale, in a way that is difficult to ignore. The statistics have been adapted to reflect current facts. Perhaps he could present his facts in a way that is more difficult to deny.

  22. Point 1: It’s interesting to see stories and blogs that beat up poor Mr. Edwards because he’s a … well, lawyer. But the lawyers sure support him. They’ve given him about $5.1 million in the presidential fundraising sweepstakes, considerably more than Mr. Obama (about $3.1 million) and Ms. Clinton (about $2.9 million).

    Lawyers, like most significant political contributors, tend to hedge their bets (issues be damned!). Republican candidates Giuliani, McCain and Romney have received each received about $1.1 million. (See: http://www.opensecrets.org/pres08/select.asp?Ind=K010.)

    Point 2: Why is it so difficult to accept the idea that a rich man wants to work on the behalf of the poor? This is a nation that believes in giving: According to onPhilanthropy, “Over the last thirty years, the United States has seen a virtual explosion in the amount of philanthropy provided by its citizens and corporations. Adjusted for inflation, total philanthropic giving has grown from $91 billion in 1965, to a staggering $260 billion in 2005, a sum greater than the entire gross domestic product of Israel, New Zealand and Jordan combined.” (See: http://www.onphilanthropy.com/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7099.)

    Point 3: What (filthy rich) presidents in the 20th century worked on behalf of the poor? It’s an impressive list. Make up your own.

    Point 4: For me, the important consideration regarding Mr. Edwards (or any candidate) is how he will demonstrate before I vote that he will be able to do what he says he wants to do. Points 1, 2 and 3 pale in comparison to that.

  23. First, about the haircut. A man must have originally done the story. Women heard that amount and nodded to themselves “yeah, that’s about right”. Any special items beyond a cut, such as a color or a treatment, add to a tab quickly. I know plenty of women who pay $200+ every few months for a cut & color. If you are doing a special occassion, like a wedding, a cut, makeup, and nails can hit $500. Add in a facial, waxing, and a massage and you can find yourself approaching $1,000. These are Denver prices, it would be even worse in New York or LA.

    Second, I think the thing that will hold Edwards back is he is too pretty. He looks young. Heck, I’ve even wanted to pat him on the head, and I’m way younger than him. Best thing that could happen to him would be a bicycle accident leaving him with some strategic scars. “Man him up” a bit.