Monday, October 24, 2005

The John Edwards experience

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.


Anonymous said...

That is a great report. I got to hear Edwards at Harvard.. and I was as ecstatic as you ;)

Anonymous said...

Ah crap! That was today? I meant to go. Thanks for the summary/reaction. :)


adi said...

I felt very similarly when he gave his 2 Americas speech here at Athens,Ohio a year ago(has it really been that long :-( ). it was a big rallying place for the Dems, and prior to his arrival we saw mike moore and jesse jackson and (gasp) jerry springer.

but edwards was awesome. his timing was amazing, and his delivery is impeccable and he has that great winning smile that i hear drives the ladies wild.

glad to see you got to meet him :)

Anonymous said...

I saw him use the "I just want to work" example in a speech on C-Span a while back. It seemed immediately to me that its purpose was to show that poor people aren't all lazy. In fact, I think I remember that he followed up the example with a sentence pretty much to that effect, although maybe I'm misremembering.

As an aside, I wonder whether in this case it really would be better to avoid saying "not-A." In this case, A = "Poor people are lazy," and when that's said explicitly it sounds pretty awful. Far right-wing advocates of A need to avoid saying A explicitly; they have to support it indirectly using the tactics you suggest, and I think that's exactly what right-wing pundits do. But I think that those who believe not-A can just come out and say it -- "Not all poor people are lazy" -- because that sounds to most people like an obvious truth.

Neil Sinhababu said...

EG, I think one of the things that made the example work was that he ran it as a Katrina story at first, rather than as a antipoverty policy story. So I didn't know what was coming.

You've swapped the A and not-A positions from my post (I have A as the liberal view). In any case, the conservative doesn't need anything as strong as you suggest. "A lot of poor people are lazy" is enough to make the conservative argument against social programs appealing to many people. The contradiction to that -- "Not a lot of poor people are lazy" is something that would probably be taken as controversial.

dadahead, Edwards mentioned during the speech that Elizabeth is doing well.

Neil Shakespeare said...

Great story. I voted for Edwards in the caucus last year but Kerry won, alas. I saw him declare his candidacy on 'The Daily Show' and thought that was pretty cool. It kind of shocked Stewart, I think, but there was Edwards and he did it. But I really decided he was the guy to beat Bush when I a debate in Iowa on C-Span of the 7 candidates. Hillary was the moderator and each candidate got 7 minutes, I think it was. He blew me away. I found myself going 'Holy Cow! What a speech!' It was like a throwback to a bygone era of great American speechifiers. (I grew up listening to Humphrey.) It was the first time I heard the 'Two Americas' speech and it hit right to the core. Alas, the Dems with what they figured was their 'safe' candidate. And it's too damn bad. I believe Edwards would have fired up this nation. I hope he runs again. And thanks for the post!

Neil Shakespeare said...

Hi again, Neil. Just posted my take on Edwards with a link to your story. Stole the pics from IN THE PINK TEXAS (linked & credited). Thanks much.

Brandon said...

Edwards pushes all my buttons, too. But i think you far overestimate his appeal to people who aren't sympathetic. I haven't met ANYONE here at UVA, GOP or Dem, who doesn't think Edwards comes off as a snake oil salesman. I want to love him, and I think he'd be a great president, but I don't think we should get too excited about his electability. I think technology isn't good to him, either - I think he's good on a stage in front of a crowd, but on TV he looks slick. I saw him on the Daily Show just the other day and I agreed with everything he said, but got the feeling that he had practiced every word in front of a mirror.

Anonymous said...

Brandon, are you kidding me? I had a bunch of republicans with me watching his daily show interview... and they thought he came across as a really personable guy.

Edwards' daily show interview was very well praised by everyone across the board on the net... as far as I saw it.

However, you are right that TV isn't good to him.... I remember that one person from a control group on MSNBC pointed out after Edwards' convention speech, that he came across as "too perfect" ... but I don't see that as too big a problem.

I think that after looking and tolerating Dubya for so many years... not to mention his broken sentences... I think the American people will appreciate competence in a candidate... someone who can speak from the top of his head, off the cuff.

Frankly, I give the candidate and his message priority over electability. But I think Edwards will have a hard time in the primaries, but if he gets the nomination... the general will be his to lose. I know he has crossover appeal, but it's the primaries that are going to be the real test.

Jenny said...

Ah, I really like both your writing and your perspective. I love the JE, too, and have high hopes that he will run and win in 2008. I still am shaking my head in bewilderment trying to figure out why we Dems elected Kerry in the primaries. yuck! Anyway... cool post and I like your blog!

Michael said...

"I and a few other reporters and bloggers"? The guy must be running if he's after the Kos crowd, eh?

Seriously, it is pretty cool that bloggers were included. How did that work, logistically?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Well, six reporters/bloggers and John Edwards were in a room together and we asked him questions for about 20-30 minutes. They invited a selection of local reporters and bloggers -- I don't really know how they picked me, but it's probably because they'd seen me advocating for Edwards online a lot.