Over the last few years, I've developed an incapacity to properly listen to political speeches. I generally approach them in some kind of meta way, analyzing how the speaker's rhetorical moves and mannerisms contribute or detract from the effect he is trying to create, and considering how they play into a broader political context. It doesn't usually matter whether I support the speaker or not -- it happens as much with Democrats as with Republicans.
That's not what happened today. For most of John Edwards' talk on poverty here on the UT campus, I was naively absorbed in what he said. This is partly because of my great Edwards enthusiasm, and partly because Edwards' speech -- the stated purpose of which was to encourage students to join a campus volunteer group -- didn't fit within a narrowly political context. It's also because Edwards is an truly amazing speaker. Everything seemed completely natural, off-the-cuff, and conversational and yet it fit together -- often uncannily -- into a well-organized speech. (There's a reason for this -- much of the speech is here. Ezra linked to it a long time ago, but I never got around to reading the whole thing.) The following reflections are, almost without exception, ex post facto.
Edwards' anecdotes about poverty didn't fit the "here's an example to obviously fit my point" rubric that disposes unsympathetic listeners to immediately think up counterarguments. In the aftermath of Katrina, Edwards met a man who had lived and worked for 23 years in New Orleans, but whose workplace had been destroyed by flooding and wouldn't reopen. A truck came by the shelter he was staying at to pick up day laborers for work at 5 AM some mornings. He had stood there for 10 days trying to be among those chosen for work, without success. He told Edwards, "So far, it hasn’t happened, but I want to go to work." The anecdote segued him from talking about Katrina to talking about general poverty issues, and I only realized later that it defused the stereotype of poor people as indolent and lazy. Some of the less tendentious Lakoff framing principles are operative here -- when you want your audience to think "A", and you know they have some degree of credence in "not-A", don't say "not not A". Give them evidence for "A", and give it in such a way that people won't even remember that "not-A" has some appeal to them. One of the major roadblocks to antipoverty spending -- the worry, primarily of middle-class whites, that they'll be supporting lazy blacks -- is thus neatly avoided. Does stable belief-change actually result? Perhaps not immediately. But I'm guessing that it would successfully push people towards liking policy proposals premised on "A", even if "not-A" also has some grip on them. And once people get in the habit of nodding along to "A", their attachment to "not-A" may fade away.
"Some of you might remember I'm the son of a mill worker" was successfully played for laughs, and that made me happy. Not only because it's good to see that Edwards knows what he's repeated ad nauseam, but because it's good (even in a fairly tuned-in crowd) to see that he's established his poor-boy upbringing enough that the joke works.
Now for the really awesome part: After the speech, I and a few other local reporters and bloggers were invited to a media session in which we could ask him questions. First I asked about his plans for providing health care coverage to more uninsured people, and asked if he had any particular reflections on single-payer plans to offer us. He didn't come out and offer any particular positive proposals, though he did talk about the necessity and inevitability of universal coverage, and went briskly through the flaws of the current system. He also had a nice bureacracy anecdote -- when Elizabeth was undergoing cancer treatment, he had to fill out a whole bunch of paperwork that he simply couldn't understand, despite being a former lawyer and Senator. I'm wondering whether Elizabeth Edwards cancer-treatment anecdotes will someday play an effective rhetorical role in bringing us closer to a decent health care system.
The end of his speech had discussed the need for American leadership in combatting global poverty, which I was very happy to hear him bring up, especially since there was no real reason why he had to talk about it. So I asked him about that too. He expressed support for more foreign aid spending, and discussed Bush Administration failures of leadership on climate change and a host of other issues.
For the last question, someone asked about whether he'd be running in 2008, and he had some kind of genial non-response, starting with "I can't believe we got this far without hearing that one!" Nobody asked him about Iraq, though he had a few offhand negative remarks about the situation. At one point, he talked about the need for Democrats to have "big ideas" instead of merely targetting their tax cuts a little lower than Republicans target theirs. He was wearing a white "Make Poverty History" bracelet of the Lance Armstrong variety that a student had given him in another town.
At the end I got my picture taken with him and some other folks. I told him that I'd volunteered for him, and that it was good to finally meet him. As I left the Union, simple walking proved too mundane for my emotional state. I leapt onto a long elevated piece of concrete that people often use as a bench and walked on it. A girl passing by broke into a smile as she saw me, and I realized that my enthusiasm was more obvious than I thought.