John Edwards: Poor man's candidate.

By

Last October, the United Steelworkers of America went on strike
against Goodyear, leading some 13,000 of its members to walk off the
job. Once they did, it was only a matter of time before John
Edwards went to see them. Like a moth to a flame--or Al Sharpton to
a police shooting--Edwards of late seems inexorably drawn to labor
strife. As he has laid the groundwork for his 2008 presidential
campaign, he has become a fixture at union rallies and on picket
lines across the country. Striking janitors at the University of
Miami; disgruntled Teamsters at a helicopter plant in Connecticut;
beleaguered hotel workers campaigning for better wages and health
insurance in Chicago, Los Angeles, even Honolulu--Edwards has
visited them all, offering words of encouragement and solidarity at
every turn. "When I hear of a group of courageous workers engaged
in a historic struggle," he told the janitors in Miami last spring,
"it is important to me to show that I am with them.''And so, in early November, about five weeks into the Goodyear
strike, Edwards paid a visit to the United Steelworkers (USW) hall
in Akron, Ohio. It was a cold Saturday morning just three days
before the midterm elections, and USW Local 2 was hosting a rally
to support both the strike and Ohio Democratic candidates. Nearly
500 Local 2 members were participating in the strike, and it seemed
as if all of them had come to kick off their weekends at the squat,
concrete building that sits in the shadow of the tiremaker's world
headquarters. Some were taking a break from the picket lines to
warm themselves with ten- cent coffee and glazed doughnuts; others
were there to inquire about getting much-needed checks from the
union's strike benefit fund. As they waited for the rally to start
in the hall's central meeting room, large men in windbreakers and
varsity-style letterman jackets emblazoned with the USW logo traded
gossip about if and when they would be going back to work.

While they did, Edwards huddled with a dozen or so union officials
in a small conference room. Although he is now 53, Edwards still
has the same slim build, foppish brown hair, and preternaturally
youthful face that made him such a bright young thing nearly a
decade ago, when he was elected to the Senate from North Carolina.
He's also managed to hold on to the same friendly, almost
deferential manner--the one he inherited from his father, who said
to his son that he could "tell if someone was talking down to me in
30 seconds"; the one he easily could have lost once he became
important enough to have his own Secret Service detail. As he made
small talk with his hosts, discussing college football and past
labor events he had attended, he immediately put them at ease.

After a while, the conversation turned to the meeting's real
purpose: preparing Edwards for his speech to the rally. In order to
know precisely what words of solidarity to offer, he needed a
background briefing--which the union officials eagerly provided,
telling him about the perfidy of Goodyear and the terribleness of
the strike as he nodded and murmured in agreement. But there was
one piece of business even more pressing than what Edwards was going
to say: what he was going to wear. He had arrived at the union hall
dressed in the standard Saturday uniform for a stumping
politician--V-neck sweater, Oxford shirt, and khakis. But that, of
course, wouldn't cut it for a labor rally. And so, with the
expectant look of a suitor offering his intended a diamond ring, an
official handed Edwards a blue USW t-shirt.

There was just one problem. When Edwards put the shirt on, it was
huge. Even though he was wearing it over two other pieces of
clothing, it fit him like a muumuu, billowing out and away from his
body. It clearly had been tailored for the sort of exceptionally
large man who tends to belong to an industrial labor union, not for
a politician who's a bit of a fitness freak. As Edwards stood
awkwardly, the shirt's shoulder seams dangling around his elbows,
one of the union officials, a giant with a tremendous gut, slapped
him on the back hard enough to knock him forward. "It's OK!" he
roared. "It makes you look skinny!"

Like the shirt, Edwards's persona for the 2008 campaign--that of a
combative champion of the working class--seems a strange fit.
Although Edwards ran for president in 2004 as a populist, he did so
as a sunny one--a disposition that appeared a natural extension of
his congenitally cheerful personality. He dubbed his political
organization the "New American Optimists" and presented himself as
the "son of a millworker" whose later success as a lawyer and a
senator was a hopeful story about American possibility. His stump
speech, which called attention to the "Two Americas," was less an
airing of grievances than a buoyant pledge to bridge the divide
between rich and poor. And his policy proposals--including
incremental reform of health care and micro-initiatives to help the
poor--were fiscally friendly as well, showing that his populist
heart was governed by a New Democrat brain.

Even when it came to campaign tactics, Edwards played nice. In the
Democratic primaries, he abstained from going negative on his
opponents--so much so that many assumed he was angling for the
number-two spot on the ticket. And, after John Kerry gave him that
spot, he didn't adopt the typical running mate's role of attack
dog. When he faced off in his vice presidential debate against Dick
Cheney--whom Democrats were hoping he would beat like a Darth Vader
pinata--Edwards turned in a largely toothless performance. As one
Edwards adviser puts it, "He was the smily, happy candidate."

But now, Edwards is trying to turn that smile into a snarl, or at
least a frown of concern. Since losing the vice presidential race
in 2004--and subsequently leaving the Senate and Washington--he has
spent his time focusing on the forgotten and neglected corners of
the United States and, to a lesser extent, the world. Acting as a
sort of latter-day Tom Joad, he has visited not just picket lines
but homeless shelters, disaster zones, and refugee camps. And, in
his current quest for the presidency, he intends to make the plight
of the people he has encountered in those places his central issue.
Accordingly, he has ditched his past com- mitment to fiscally
restrained Rubinomics and now favors universal health coverage and
an expensive raft of other policy initiatives to lift
Americans--and even people in other countries--out of poverty. When
he officially announced he was running for president in late
December, he did so not sitting next to his wife in the comfort of
their family home in a Raleigh neighborhood called Country Club
Hills--as he had in the 2004 campaign--but standing by himself in
the debris-strewn backyard of a hurricane- damaged house in New
Orleans's Ninth Ward. "This campaign," he declared, "will be a
grassroots, ground-up campaign, where we ask people to take
action."

It's a campaign that seems off to a promising start. Edwards's
reinvention has moved him to the left of Hillary Clinton, which, in
the Democratic primaries, should be a good location. And, while
Barack Obama--presumably the other top-tier Democratic
candidate--is also to Clinton's left, he will have to face the
questions about experience, or lack thereof, that Edwards dealt
with in 2004. The election calendar could also play to Edwards's
favor, as he currently leads in public opinion polls of Democrats
in Iowa, the site of the first caucus; is strong in South Carolina,
which holds the second primary; and is tight with the all-powerful
culinary workers union in Nevada, which hosts the second caucus.
Indeed, according to The New York Times, no less an authority than
Clinton herself has told associates that Edwards and Obama are her
two biggest obstacles to the nomination.

Still, while Edwards's new incarnation may bring him certain
advantages in the race, it's nonetheless a peculiar bit of
political positioning. The Democratic primaries have not, after
all, been terribly generous to pro-union populists (just ask Dick
Gephardt), and it has been a generation or more since a national
Democrat has gotten far by campaigning against poverty. Indeed, for
all the political calculations that have presumably played into
Edwards's shift, it seems as though something else has been at
work, as well.

"I can tell you one thing that's changed for me, and it's very
significant for me personally," Edwards told me in one of several
conversations we had in the weeks before he officially launched his
campaign. "When I was running for president before, in 2003, 2004,
I spent most of my time thinking about what I could do to be a
better candidate." He paused, as if to let this confession sink in.
"That's just not what I think about anymore," he went on. "Now what
I spend my time thinking about is what I want to do as president of
the United States." Often derided as "plastic" and "a lightweight"
during his last national campaign, Edwards has, in other words,
been searching for his own political essence, both as a source of
gravitas and as a rationale for his continued presidential
ambitions. And, in his role as a crusader for the working class, he
seems to think he has found it.

It's hard to imagine a political defeat more devastating than the
one Edwards suffered in November 2004. First, there was the shock
of it: On the afternoon of Election Day, when he boarded a plane
for Boston to await the official results, the early exit polls had
convinced him--and the rest of the Kerry-Edwards campaign--that the
Democratic ticket was on its way to victory; it was only a few
hours later, after his plane landed, that he learned things didn't
look so good. Then there was the frustration: The morning after the
election, he participated in a campaign conference call and found
himself alone in arguing that Kerry should not concede until the
anecdotal reports of voting irregularities in Ohio were cleared up.
But the truly crushing blow came immediately after Kerry's
concession speech at Faneuil Hall, when Edwards and his wife
Elizabeth paid a surreptitious visit to a Boston hospital. A few
weeks earlier, she'd discovered a lump on her breast; then, a day
after he lost the election, they were told that she had cancer.

John and Elizabeth Edwards have experienced tragedy before: In 1996,
their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car accident. Both of
them say that experience helped give them the strength to deal with
her illness. Some family friends also believe that her cancer may
have helped him better cope with his election defeat. "I never saw
him become this morose, bitter person muttering, `But for Ohio, I'd
be on top of the world,'" says Ed Turlington, a North Carolina
lawyer who served as the chairman of Edwards's 2004 presidential
campaign. "He just threw himself into getting Elizabeth well."

After a few weeks--once Elizabeth had chosen a course of treatment
and been given a good prognosis by her doctors--Edwards turned to
the question of what he would do next, since his Senate term was up
and he was now looking for a job. He had a number of options. Out-
going Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe had
pushed him to pursue that post. There were people encouraging him
to write a campaign memoir or a book laying out a vision for the
future of the Democratic Party; others wanted him to do a TV talk
show. Some investment houses and law firms were interested in
having him join them, as well. Around Thanksgiving, Edwards
convened a meeting at his Washington house of his inner
circle--Elizabeth, people who'd worked for him in the Senate and on
his presidential campaign, longtime family friends--to discuss his
future options. According to multiple participants, it didn't take
him long to dismiss them all. What he wanted to do, he told those
assembled, was focus his energies on fighting poverty.

Shortly thereafter, Edwards founded a poverty think tank at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which he has since
used as both a base of operations and a vehicle to familiarize
himself with academic research on the issue. Jacob Hacker, a Yale
political scientist who attended a two-day seminar at the think
tank last year, came away impressed. "It wasn't as if the
presentations were by rabble-rousing Democratic activists calling
for revolution," Hacker says. "There were some very technical
social- science discussions, and he seemed very engaged by them."
He also conducted his own version of fieldwork. Robert Gordon, a
domestic policy adviser to Edwards, recalls a trip they took to a
community development corporation in the small town of Washington,
North Carolina. "It was a roundtable with regular people like you
see in campaigns," Gordon says, "except there were no cameras, and
the regular people were really down on their luck. There were a
couple of people who'd had pretty serious drug problems, a few who
had HIV. There was a woman who'd lived in a homeless shelter and
who'd had her kids taken from her." When a minister at the meeting
reminded the group that they were sitting next to a man who was
almost vice president, Gordon says Edwards interrupted. "He said,
`I might have almost been vice president, but I am no better than
anybody in this room.'"

Edwards explains his focus on poverty matter-of-factly. He ran for
the Senate, and then the presidency, to "serve." (His successful
career as a trial lawyer left him with no real need to make more
money: In 2003, his net worth was estimated to be between

$12.8 million and $60 million.) Even though he no longer held
elected office- -and was unsure as to whether he ever would
again--he says his commitment to service remained, and poverty was
the issue where he thought his service would be most valuable. "It
felt to me like there was a huge void in national engagement on
this issue," he told me, "and it was something I really cared
about, so it was a natural fit." For public consumption, at least,
it's as simple as that.

But Edwards's decision to focus on poverty almost certainly involved
a political calculation as well. Although he is not someone for
whom the presidency has been a lifelong ambition, his 2004 defeat
clearly galled him. He may not have been muttering "but for Ohio"
while Elizabeth was sick, but, since then, there has been some
grumbling "but for Howard Dean's scream." Many in the Edwards camp
believe to this day that Dean's televised outburst denied Edwards
the momentum he'd earned by finishing a strong second in the Iowa
caucuses. The clearest summation of this view can be found in
Elizabeth's recent memoir, Saving Graces:

We had always heard that two stories come out of Iowa, and what we
wanted was for John to be one of them. If The Scream hadn't
happened, Kerry and John would have been the stories coming out of
Iowa. ... Since it did happen, Kerry and The Scream were the
stories. And there was no New Hampshire bump.

No New Hampshire bump for Edwards (it went solely to Kerry instead)
meant no nomination. Add to this Edwards's displeasure with Kerry's
general election campaign--he privately complained that it wasn't
aggressive enough in attacking President Bush or competing in some
red states--and it appears he felt he was tantalizingly close to
the White House or the vice president's office but for other
people's mistakes.

And, while focusing on poverty might seem like an odd choice for
someone once again eyeing the White House, it makes a certain sense
if you view politics the way Edwards does. For a politician of such
immense talent, one of the most remarkable things about Edwards is
just how politically unformed he is. Prior to his own Senate
campaign in 1998, he--unlike most people who make a fortune and
then run for office--wasn't even a political junkie: He voted only
about half of the time and gave relatively little money in campaign
contributions. Since then, Edwards has become a ferocious political
animal, preparing himself for campaigns the way he once prepped for
trials; but his political knowledge and experience, in many
respects, goes back only to the second half of the Clinton
administra- tion. And, during that time, of course, questions of
authenticity and a candidate's character have dominated
presidential campaigns.

This helps explain why Edwards seems to view the presidential
campaign less as a contest between ideologies or even policy
proposals than as a referendum on each candidate as a person. "Do I
have the strength and character to lead this country? I mean,
that's the question," he told me. "The judgment should be made on
vision, and strength, and character, and who you really are." In
2004, the perception (fair or not) of Edwards was that he was a
young politician in a hurry, one defined more by personal ambition
than a set of core convictions or a guiding vision for the country.
But that's a much harder case to make about someone who has spent
the last two years holding poverty seminars and visiting food
banks. "Presidential campaigns are primarily about character and
sort of a broad sense of priorities and values," says Harrison
Hickman, Edwards's pollster. "In that sense, his attention to
poverty as an issue defines a lot about where he comes from, about
what he thinks the failings of the country are and what he thinks
the priorities of the country are."

Nor does Edwards's crusade end at the water's edge. Lack of foreign
policy experience was one of his greatest shortcomings in 2004,
and, since then, he has been busy trying to make it a strong suit.
First, of course, there is Iraq: As a senator, Edwards voted for
the resolution authorizing Bush to use force-- and defended that
vote throughout the last presidential campaign--but, in November
2005, he became one of the first prominent Democrats who supported
the war to say his vote had been a mistake. Speaking at an August
rally for Democratic Senate candidate (and antiwar champion) Ned
Lamont, Edwards reiterated his mea culpa. "I voted for this war. I
was wrong. I should not have voted for this war," he told a crowd
of several hundred Lamont supporters who had gathered in a
courtyard at Yale Medical School. He then added a call for
immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces: "We need to make it clear that
we're going to leave Iraq, and the best way to make that clear is
to obviously start leaving."

More broadly, Edwards--who, as a senator, wasn't a prodigious
foreign junketeer--has become something of a globetrotter over the
last two years, taking trips to Israel, Russia, China, India, and
Uganda, among other exotic locales. And the lesson he has learned
from those travels parallels what he has learned in the soup
kitchens and union halls he's visited in this country. "We have two
responsibilities," he told the Lamontsters. "One of those is to
look after the interests of the United States of America. The
second responsibility is to look after the interests of humanity."

Undoubtedly aware of the poor track record of foreign policy
idealism in Iraq, Edwards tries to couch his call for American
global do-goodism in realist terms. "The most important
responsibility of the next president," he frequently says, "is to
restore America's leadership in the world, because if we don't
lead, there is chaos." But, for all the geo-strategic framing,
Edwards's desire for increased U.S. engagement with the world
sometimes seems to reflect the thinking of someone who has just
recently realized how big--and how troubled-- the world really is.

"We talk about poverty in America; poverty in America is moderate
compared to poverty around the world," Edwards declared at the
Lamont rally. He then proceeded to tell a story about how, "just
before this past Christmas," he had visited some slums outside of
Delhi. Asking the crowd to "picture in your mind for just a minute
and be there with me," he described "little narrow alleyways filled
with sewage, flies, animals everywhere" and how, amid all this
misery, he saw "a little area about twice the size of this stage.
There were four blankets laid out on the pavement, and there were
probably 15 or 20 children on each blanket." He paused, waiting for
his audience to let the picture de- velop in their minds. "And then
I realized," he went on, his voice now tinged with wonder and
regret, "these children were in school. This was their school."

It was a powerful story, told in a powerful fashion, but the crowd,
while moved, also seemed somewhat puzzled. What was Edwards's
point? That, while Lamont battled Joe Lieberman, there were
children starving in India? So Edwards spelled it out for them,
adding a final line to his tale. "And I walked away from there," he
concluded, his voice now practically a whisper, "and I said to
myself, `Where is America?'"

On the second anniversary of one of the worst days of his life--the
day that his running mate conceded the election and his wife was
diagnosed with cancer-- Edwards returned to the place where it all
happened. He was in Boston to speak that night at an awards dinner
for local community activists, although the trip also served as a
convenient excuse to see his oldest daughter, 24-year-old Cate,
who's attending Harvard Law School. (Edwards and his wife have two
other children, eight-year-old Emma Claire and six-year-old Jack.)
Before the speech, he met me at a seafood restaurant in his hotel
for our first interview.

He wasn't in a particularly good mood. He was battling a cold--which
seemed to have been exacerbated by the chilly New England
weather--and he'd recently tweaked his hamstring, which meant that
he'd been unable to go for one of his five-mile runs. When a waiter
came to take our order, Edwards curtly informed him, "We're not
eating," and asked for an iced tea. But, eventually, as he settled
into the interview, he seemed to relax. Still, to most questions I
asked, he gave answers that were deeply rehearsed. His comment about
the "enormous freedom to choose what I am most interested in doing
and spending my time on" sounded a lot like the "enormous freedom
[of] being able to do what I am now" that he'd boasted of to a
crowd of Democrats in New Hampshire the previous year. The
observation he made to me that "China is going to become the
largest English-speaking nation on the face of the planet" was one
he'd make to Charlie Rose a couple of weeks later. Even his
seemingly candid admission that, in the last presidential campaign,
he was focused on being a "better candidate" as opposed to a better
president was, in fact, a line he's given to numerous reporters.

In all, Edwards seemed at pains to avoid saying anything too candid
or potentially controversial. When I asked him for his response to
Bill Clinton's contention, as quoted in The New Yorker, that he ran
for president prematurely in 2004, he dodged: "I think it's the
wrong way [for candidates] to think about running for president of
the United States ... to evaluate what's in their best interest."
(Elizabeth, for her part, is bracingly candid. When I later asked
her about Clinton's comment, she shot back, "During the campaign,
Bill Clinton was enormously supportive of John, constantly giving
him advice and encouraging him in every conceivable way. At no
point in my recollection did John ever get off the phone after a
conversation with him where he said, `Bill thinks it's too early
for me.' Never. Not once." Was this just Bill trying to talk down a
potential rival to Hillary? "I can come to the same supposition
anybody else can about why he said that.") Even my mention of the
strange coincidence of his being in Boston on the second
anniversary of the traumatic day he spent here failed to elicit
much of a response. "Is it really?" he asked, before quickly
changing the subject to a retelling of his efforts to convince Kerry
not to concede--a retelling identical to the one Elizabeth has laid
out for public consumption in her book.

Presidential candidates, of course, are given to pat answers--partly
because they're so often asked the same questions, partly because
being candid carries so many risks. But Edwards's exceptional
guardedness seems strange for a candidate who now makes such a
fetish of authenticity--for a candidate, in fact, who makes a
pointed distinction between guarded, pabulum-spewing politicians
and can- did, truth-telling leaders. "What happens with
politicians," he recently told a public radio interviewer, "is that
you're conditioned not to be yourself. You're conditioned to say
the same thing over and over and over, because that's the safe
route. ... We need a leader, or leaders, who are willing to be
themselves, who'll tell the truth as they see it." Or, as he
complained to me about the last presidential campaign, during which
he seems to think he acted more like a politi- cian than a leader:
"It was just plastic, there was a lot of plasticity to it. You
know--young, Southern, dynamic, charismatic, beautiful family, all
that. People need to see who I am, what my character is." Which,
come to think of it, sounds a lot like something Edwards says in a
"behind the scenes" video his campaign recently posted on YouTube:
"I actually want the country to see who I am, who I really am. ...
I'd rather be successful or unsuccessful based on who I really am,
not based on some plastic Ken doll you put up in front of
audiences."

About the only time Edwards seemed to switch off autopilot during
the interview was when he talked about poverty. "You should cut me
off on this," he warned, "because I spend a lot of time talking
about this." And he did. He talked about his various ideas for
fighting poverty--raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions,
reforming public housing, creating one million federally funded
"stepping stone" jobs at nonprofits or government agencies. He
talked about just how much he still had to learn and how even he
sometimes felt despair about the intractable nature of the problem.
"The cultural component of poverty and what feeds the cycle of
poverty--I don't think I ever really got it until, like, for the
fifteenth time I'm sitting with a 33-year-old, 32-year-old mother
who has a 14-year-old who's having the third child," he said. "And
you hear that and it's just, `How will they ever get out?' You
know, it's `What can you do?'" He seemed genuinely offended when I
asked him whether he was surprised that Americans' post-Katrina
concern about poverty had waned so rapidly. "I think it's very
superficial to suggest that there was interest [and] it's gone," he
said. "It's not gone. It's still there. It's just not on the
surface. ... It's deeper down."

A few hours later, Edwards went to one of those places where the
interest in poverty was anything but buried: the dinner banquet
honoring local community activists. It wasn't the hottest political
ticket in Boston that night--that honor went to the final big
campaign rally for Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate
Deval Patrick, where Barack Obama was giving a speech. But the
event seemed like an opportunity for Edwards, since it allowed him
to speak to people who were fighting poverty--in other words, his
people. He congratulated them for their commitment to "the great
moral cause in America today," which, he noted, "is now the cause
of my own life." But then Edwards launched into a speech that
followed, almost to the letter, the same trajectory as our
interview: the same policy proposals, the same observations, even
the same revelatory anecdotes. "One of the things that I've been
struck by in the work that we've been doing over the last several
years is that you sit with a mother, a single mom ... and her
14-year-old daughter is giving birth to the third child. And it
just feeds this cycle of poverty." What had sounded so fresh and
genuine to me only hours before already seemed stale and scripted.

Yet it was anything but to the people in the room. When Edwards
finished his speech, the vast banquet hall rose as one and gave him
a standing ovation. He left the banquet early to have dinner with
his daughter, but, as he snuck out through the hotel's kitchen, he
was mobbed by some of the waiters and waitresses who'd watched his
speech from the wings. "I listened to what you said out there," one
told Edwards, her voice breaking. "Thank you so much for saying it.
It means a lot. Please keep saying it."

It's a sentiment Edwards hears frequently. Although his spiel may be
pat, although his words may be overly rehearsed, he's still saying
things that no other candidate in this presidential race seems
prepared to say--things that probably need to be said. There's a
difference, after all, between spontaneity and sincerity. In his
previous profession as a litigating attorney, Edwards was famous
for the emotional power of his closing arguments. Other lawyers
would pack the courtroom to hear him offer the final brief on
behalf of the family of the little girl who'd had her intestines
sucked out by a pool drain or the little boy whose parents had been
killed by a speeding tractor-trailer. That those closing arguments
were rehearsed to the point where Edwards could deliver them in his
sleep didn't make the sentiment behind them any less genuine--or,
for that matter, less effective. Indeed, that sometimes seems to be
Edwards's signal gift--the ability to find the thread of emotional
truth even in a line he's recited 20 times before. It's what made
him a successful lawyer and makes him a formidable presidential
candidate.

This was never more apparent than at the USW hall in Akron, where
Edwards stood in his ill- fitting t-shirt as he waited for his turn
to address the striking Goodyear workers. The speakers preceding
him had offered stiff, stilted words of support to the
workers--words that seemed to ring hollow to the crowd, which had
grown anxious and restless. When Edwards's turn came, it wasn't
hard to sense their skepticism. Here was a millionaire politician
with Hollywood good looks who couldn't possibly know the first
thing about what these workers were going through. But then Edwards
stepped up to the podium, yanked the microphone out of its holder,
and launched into his speech.

He began by striking his standard note of solidarity. He said that
he had come to Akron on a "personal mission to stand with my
brothers and sisters and for those who are standing up for men and
women who have worked their entire lives and have earned dignity,
and respect, and health care." He said the union was showing
"backbone and courage to do what's right." What the workers were
fighting for, after all, was a dignity that they already possessed
and that their employer was trying to take away from them. "We're
talking about standing up to protect what they're entitled to," he
said. "That's what this is about."

Edwards went on in this vein for a little longer, casting the strike
as part of a larger fight to honor the legacies of those who "have
worked to make America what it is today." But, eventually, Edwards
brought his speech--and the strike--back to himself. Although he
didn't work in a tire factory, although he had every material
possession a person could possibly desire, he wanted the striking
workers to know that he truly understood their struggle. "I take
this very personally," he said, as the crowd grew silent. "My
mother and father have health care today because of the union. My
brother, my only brother, and his family have health care today
because of the union. This is a just and righteous cause. You stood
up and made huge concessions for this company in 2003. You did what
was right, and it's time to make Goodyear"--he said the company's
name with a slight hiss--"do what they're supposed to do."

Before Edwards had even finished his sentence, the crowd began to
whoop and cheer. He acknowledged the applause with a grin and a
wave. "So I'm proud to be with you," he said, his words now nearly
drowned out. The Goodyear strike would drag on for two more months
and the USW, in the end, would agree to a contract with some
provisions it once considered anathema. But, at that moment, as
Edwards stood on the stage and the union hall reverberated with
cheers, there was suddenly hope that a better outcome, and maybe
even a better life, was possible. The t-shirt may have looked a
little ridiculous on Edwards at first, but it turned out to be a
perfect fit.

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