Iheard several lines from John Edwards' convention speech on the radio before I clicked it off. Anymore and I would have vomited.
As it was, I experienced a horrible flashback to being a twelve-year old at the Midwest Baptists' Camp Sycamore, sitting in the sweltering cinderblock meeting hall, shirt stuck to the back of a card-table chair, while a strutting little preacher sprayed beads of sweat and globs of spit into the twilight yelling about hell.
John Edwards is pure Elmer Gantry.
Well, what would you expect from a guy who spent twenty years chasing ambulances, looking for deep pockets to sue, always waving his arms and smiling like a chipmunk? America's litigation lawyers and its evangelists-for-profit have a lot in common, and when they come from places like Dog Bite, North Carolina, it's almost impossible to tell them apart. There's always a syrupy sweet exterior, the beneficent smile -- just think of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson -- in the ruthless pursuit of things that human society would be better off without.
Here's a few lines from John's official site on how he sees his career:
For…20 years, John dedicated his career to representing families and children hurt by the negligence of others. Standing up against the powerful insurance industry and their armies of lawyers, John helped these families through the darkest moments of their lives to overcome tremendous challenges. His passionate advocacy for people like the folks who worked in the mill with his father earned him respect and recognition across the country.
That sounds like a promo for the next episode of "Rescuing Little Nell from the Clutches of Snidely Whiplash." Of course, it's what the words don't say that is often important. Why did John only stand up for "families and children"? Is there something wrong with representing people without families or children? Of course not, but his language is reclaimed manure from the Republican family-values compost heap.
John stood against armies of lawyers? No, actually John swelled the ranks of lawyers who now swarm America like the aftereffect of a lab-accident release of killer bees, spreading conflict and fear everywhere they appear. The blurb doesn't say that in twenty years John had made himself a very rich man through litigation, that is by helping to raise insurance premiums for everyone, but that's the truth. "Standing up against the powerful insurance industry…" could just as well read, "Mining the huge revenues of the insurance industry for all he could haul away…."
Like any of America's current crop of crocodile-tear evangelists hoping to witness a repeat of the miracle of the loaves and fishes from a collection plate, John helped families through their "darkest moments," just managing to accumulate a fortune by the time he was in his forties. Well, I'm not against success, just against misrepresenting what it is you did.
Since most litigation is socially disruptive and economically unproductive, there is something particularly disturbing about one of its predatory practitioners seeking high office. After all, it is the abject failure of American legislators to provide sufficient enlightened laws and decent regulations that makes the threatening jungle where litigation flourishes.
Reading the balance of John's speech on the Internet had the advantage of not having to hear his backwoods, folksy tone and watch his flamboyant, well-practiced gestures, but I still quickly grasped why John was so successful at litigation. People would settle just to escape having to hear him for months in court. My favorite passage of his speech is this:
When you wake up and sit with your kids at the kitchen table, talking to them about the great possibilities in America, you make sure that they know that John and I believe at our core that tomorrow can be better than today. Like all of us, I have learned a lot of lessons in my life. Two of the most important are that first, there will always be heartache and struggle—you can’t make it go away. But the other is that people of good and strong will can make a difference. One lesson is a sad lesson and the other’s inspiring. We are Americans and we choose to be inspired
Apart from the fact that half of all America's marriages end in divorce, you could never convince me that there are many of the remaining families who sit around a breakfast table talking up "the great possibilities of America." Can't you just see squirming kids, screaming about how someone ate all the Lucky Charms or what a jerk the math teacher is, falling silent as a father decides to lift his Lincolnesque brows, perhaps having offered the blessing for the morning's Pop Tarts, to invoke the great possibilities of America? Doesn't that sound just a little bizarre? If this is what happens at John's house, you should be afraid of his holding office. If this isn't what happens at John's house, why is he saying it?
The truth is, and I'm sure John knows this, few families even sit together at the breakfast table in America, and, if they do, there's a better-than-even chance that a television is mindlessly blaring the whole time. As for millions of poor families, there is no breakfast on the table. Isn't that why Head Start supplies the kids with food at school? Even in suburban middle-class families, it's all they can do to each make it out of the door on time with rush-hour commutes and drop-offs for the privileged kids' heavy schedule of activities.
And how do like that injunction about adding to the breakfast-table sermon, "you make sure that they know that John and I believe at our core that tomorrow can be better than today." John and I believe at our core? Why can't they just believe? Why must it be at their core, whatever that means? The word suggests a nuclear reactor rather than a human being. Anyway, more than a few disturbed personalities in history lay claim to some kind of mystical core something-or-other. Frankly, this statement is so patronizing and ridiculous, it makes me wonder about John's rationality.
And what does John mean about tomorrow being better than today? It resembles the words of a certain old American religious huckster who used to open his pitch for money by saying "Something GOOD is going to happen to YOU!" But it is worse than that, because it is so utterly implausible and silly. He is giving you an injunction to talk seriously to your kids about the fatuous advertising claims of two bought-and-paid-for politicians.
John has one or more mini-sermons in almost every brief passage. You'd think he was running for church deacon instead of high political office. I like his great first lesson, "there will always be heartache and struggle—you can’t make it go away." Is that what the leaders of a great nation are supposed to talk about? Do we need national elections to hear lines borrowed from Oprah Winfrey?
Then there's, "But the other is that people of good and strong will can make a difference. One lesson is a sad lesson and the other’s inspiring. We are Americans and we choose to be inspired."
John probably has in mind the kind of "inspired" a preacher talks about, as the inspired Word of God. That kind of inspired allows of no mistakes, because God can't make any. It also allows of no questions or critics. Nice stuff for a politician to embrace - feel self-righteous while effectively telling people to shut-up.
In the real world, and it is the job of politicians to deal with the real world, inspired is not always a sound state of mind. Inspired about what? Inspired to do what? People are just as likely to be inspired to do terrible things as good things. The word is often used by the flunkies of great tyrants. Germans regularly used the word to describe Der Fűhrer. The ghastly blood-letting of Vietnam was inspired by a loopy, religious-like belief in the need to stop communism. Would you say that that smiling humbug, Pat Robertson, was inspired when he recently advocated America's invading Iran to overthrow the heathens?
The passage is full of question-begging phrases. Make a difference to what? I can't help thinking of the cliché about the path to hell being paved with good intentions. Sorry, John, but there's no shortage of leaders with strong wills in the world, and each of them believes in his own goodness. That fact is almost certainly one of the human race's true curses.
The rest of John's speech is sprinkled with soul-deadening clichés and even contradictions. At one point, he said, "I stand here tonight ready to work with you and John [Kerry] to make America strong again." Well, I think the last thing any thinking person on the planet wants are people working to make America stronger. America has destabilized two countries, killed tens of thousands of innocent people, tortured, and improperly imprisoned simply because it had the power to do so. Power is like that, as Lord Acton so wisely said, it corrupts. Chase after enough of it, and you get absolute corruption.
John's speech takes on the theme of two Americas, and were he to deal with the genuine problem of two distinct and separate societies in America (actually, I think it is three, including the wealthy class represented by all the Presidential candidates)), he might have said something worthwhile. John tells us: "Because the truth is, we still live in two different Americas: one for people who have lived the American Dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans who work hard and still struggle to make ends meet. It doesn’t have to be that way." But it was John himself who already told us how struggle and difficulties won't go away, so what's he saying?
On education, John says: "We shouldn't have two public school systems in this country: one for the most affluent communities, and one for everybody else. None of us believe that the quality of a child’s education should be controlled by where they live or the affluence of their community."
John must know perfectly well that education is not primarily a responsibility of the federal government under America's 18th-century Constitution, so what's he talking about? What does he propose to do to change a situation where some suburban high schools have PhDs teaching and classes enjoy trips to Europe, while urban schools have labs with rusted taps and Bunsen burners that don't work?
The truth is that all good things in America, including medical care and political influence, are rationed according to ability to pay. So why would education be any different?
John adds: "We shouldn't have two different economies in America: one for people who are set for life, their kids and grandkids will be just fine, and then one for most Americans who live paycheck to paycheck." What does that mean, beyond populist hot air? I have no idea, and I suspect John doesn't either.
Here's Preacher John on adversity and hardship: "…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. And
what’s the first thing to go? Your dreams." Your dreams? I really think
dreams are the last thing people experiencing hardship worry about. They are
worried about getting through with a shred of dignity, perhaps about
surviving. Is John offering them genuine help or an airy hand-out of dreams
We will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to make sure that never happens again, not to our America…. We will strengthen our homeland security and protect our ports, safeguard our chemical plants, and support our firefighters, police officers and EMT’s. We will always use our military might to keep the American people safe….And we will have one clear unmistakable message for al Qaida and the rest of these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you.
Does John think there are people in America - other than its substantial population of militia types, survivalists, millenarianists, and those looking forward to Armageddon - who want that to happen again? Does he think there's people, other than the two million or so in America's prisons, who don't support police?
John's promise to hunt down terrorists is pure comic-book superhero, and isn't it exactly what the delusional Bush believes he's been doing all along? What does John propose that is different? He says absolutely nothing about using proper diplomatic and legal channels to hunt down violent criminals or about strengthening international institutions. No, it's all America this and America that, the same totally narcissistic stuff that's making the world sick of hearing from America. Nobody wants a friend who only talks about himself and refuses to help anyone except on his own terms, but Americans like John think those same qualities somehow become attractive traits in world relations. Like his partner-candidate, Kerry, he promises only more threats about not hesitating to use the military to kill more people.
Keep in mind that John, sitting as he does on a Senate intelligence committee, has an extremely high intelligence clearance and ask yourself what he was able to forecast or advocate either before or after 9/11. Not much is the answer. John's pet project now is to start a new domestic spy agency - still another multi-billion-dollar agency on top the vast existing network of intrusive agencies and one dedicated specifically to spying on the homeland's residents. Does that sound like someone genuinely concerned about rights and freedoms? Someone should ask John if he is committed to rescinding the execrable Patriot Act, but I doubt he'd receive an honest answer.
Having Preacher John teamed up with Kerry - that drearily ambitious man whose concept of bravery ran to shooting civilians safely from a riverboat in Vietnam - leaves me with a bleak outlook for America and thereby the world. That this dishonest pair and the insipid Bush are the best America offers as leaders says something terrible about that frighteningly-powerful nation: it suffers a devastating poverty of imagination and spirit.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company.
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