For John Ed­wards, A Mo­ment of Truth

The Washington Post - - Style - By Kevin Merida

Pol­i­tics de­mands that some truths can­not be told. You can­not di­vulge how much you ache inside, how dif­fi­cult de­feat is to swal­low un­til you swal­low it.

A week ago John Ed­wards was on his cam­paign bus barn­storm­ing through rural South Carolina when he was asked a ques­tion that so many were pon­der­ing about his pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy: Are you in the Demo­cratic race for the long haul? “Yes, sir,” he said. Re­gard­less of how well you do in the South Carolina pri­mary or on Su­per Tues­day? Is there any cal­cu­la­tion that would change your mind?

Ed­wards shook his head, no. He would com­pete all the way to the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

“This is not about me or my per­sonal am­bi­tion,” he said in the in­ter­view. “It’s about the cause and the voices who are not be­ing

heard.”

Yes­ter­day, Ed­wards ended his cam­paign where he be­gan it, in New Or­leans, in­vok­ing the cause of poverty and the voices of jan­i­tors, nurses and poul­try work­ers. He ended it with a straight­for­ward declar­a­tive sen­tence: “It’s time for me to step aside so that his­tory can blaze its path.” That was a sim­ple truth he had long known, for ei­ther Barack Obama or Hil­lary Clin­ton was bound to win the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion. But it was a truth he felt he could not re­veal even a week ago.

Hind­sight is a cheap piece of in­stant wis­dom, not nearly so valu­able as pre­science. But here’s some hind­sight from South Carolina: As Ed­wards cam­paigned there, a na­tive son come home, his voice was strong and pas­sion­ate when­ever he was on­stage or bel­low­ing from a bull­horn. But when he was min­gling in a diner, when folks were whis­per­ing in his ear, when he was sign­ing their posters, his eyes some­times told a dif­fer­ent story — and not one of at­ten­tive ex­u­ber­ance. He had the dead eyes of a can­di­date look­ing past the mo­ment.

At White­ford’s Gi­ant Burger in Lau­rens, S.C., a re­tired wo­man beck­oned him to­ward her. “I don’t know if I can get way over there,” Ed­wards told her. “I’m sorry.” She was not more than 10 feet away. Would Ed­wards have made the small ef­fort at a dif­fer­ent point in his cam­paign? For what­ever hind­sight’s worth.

And there was this: “The whole coun­try knows [El­iz­a­beth] is ter­mi­nally ill,” for­mer Ge­or­gia con­gress­man Ben Jones said of Ed­ward’s wife and po­lit­i­cal part­ner. “If it’s you or me, it’s a no-brainer. El­iz­a­beth is such a trouper, and she cam­paigned so re­lent­lessly, I’m sure she was ex­hausted. I think he made the right de­ci­sion on a per­sonal level, that his pri­or­ity was her health. It’s hard for ei­ther one of them to give this up.”

Be­gin­ning Tues­day night and con­tin­u­ing yes­ter­day morn­ing, Ed­wards made phone calls to peo­ple who needed to know of his de­ci­sion be­fore he an­nounced it. He reached Dave “Mud­cat” Saun­ders, a se­nior strate­gist and the cam­paign’s na­tional rural li­ai­son, in a ho­tel room in At­lanta. Saun­ders was pre­par­ing for Su­per Tues­day. The news turned him melan­choly.

“I’m a Scots-Ir­ish hill­billy. I op­er­ate on pas­sion rather than intelligen­ce,” he said. Saun­ders spoke by phone yes­ter­day evening while trav­el­ing the high­ways headed home to Vir­ginia. “I’m go­ing to get home and get un­der my bed and get in a fe­tal po­si­tion and suck my thumb with my gun, and then get back out there.”

When Ed­wards phoned, he told Saun­ders: “I just want you to know you’re my pal.” Ac­cord­ing to Saun­ders, Ed­wards was more wor­ried about him than any­thing else. Ed- wards did not, how­ever, speak an­other truth that seems ev­i­dent: He is drawn more to Obama than to Clin­ton.

Cam­paign ad­vis­ers say this, and Ed­wards’s de­bate and stump per­for­mances say this. Yes­ter­day, how­ever, all Ed­wards would say is he will con­tinue talk­ing to both can­di­dates but not en­dorse any­one just yet.

But here’s what ol’ Mud­cat had to say about that: “I’m go­ing to do ev­ery­thing I can to make sure it’s not Hil­lary Clin­ton.” Saun­ders added: “Hil­lary Clin­ton has about as much chance of beat­ing John McCain as this Scots-Ir­ish hill­billy has of be­com­ing pope.”

This, of course, pre­sumes John McCain will be the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee. But re­gard­less, Saun­ders’s logic is that there is no state in the coun­try that Clin­ton can win that John Kerry didn’t win in 2004. Which leaves the Democrats a state short of vic­tory.

“I’ve gone over the math care­fully,” said Saun­ders. “Barack Obama, I don’t know enough about him to make that de­ci­sion on whether he can win. I’ve never met him. But his chances would have to be stronger than Hil­lary’s.” Hil­lary? “She’s got toxic coat­tails,” added Saun­ders. “I think it could be dev­as­tat­ing for the party.”

John Ed­wards would never say any­thing like that.

When asked in the in­ter­view last week if he had more in com­mon with Obama or Clin­ton, there was a nine-sec­ond pause. “It’s a com­pli­cated ques­tion,” Ed­wards fi­nally said. And then he went into, for a sec­ond time, how much pride he felt that his party could have an African Amer­i­can and a wo­man as its two lead­ing can­di­dates. “I’ll just leave it at that for now.” But oth­ers won’t. Jones, best known as Cooter on the 1980s TV show “The Dukes of Haz­zard,” cam­paigned for Ed­wards in all of the early states. He said most of the Ed­wards staffers he dealt with were par­tial to the sen­a­tor from Illi­nois. In­ter­views with other cam­paign aides sug­gest Jones is onto some­thing. One se­nior Ed­wards ad­viser said Obama was not per­fect, but comes clos­est to be­ing a con­sen­sus sec­ond choice: “Clin­ton is the sta­tus quo, Obama ap­peases the sta­tus quo. And John fights the sta­tus quo.” Ex­cept John has left the ring. “I’ve al­ready en­listed in the Barack Obama cam­paign,” Jones said. “The fight goes on. It’s about the past and the fu­ture, and I’m with the fu­ture. I think the Clin­tons are the past.” As for what Ed­wards will do? That truth is known. It just hasn’t been re­vealed.

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