The Down and out Tour; Edwards's Poverty Campaign Echoes RFK's, but Times Have Changed (and Edwards Is No RFK)

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Darman (With Katie Connolly)

John Edwards is a smart politician who knows the value of modesty. When asked about Robert F. Kennedy, he says simply, "I don't deserve to be compared to him." But throughout his campaign for the Democrat's 2008 presidential nomination, Edwards has not-so-subtly encouraged the Kennedy comparison. He notes that no presidential candidate "in 40 years"-- since Kennedy--has run a campaign centered on the plight of America's poor. Last week he ended his three-day, 1,800-plus-mile "Road to One America" poverty tour in Prestonburg, Ky., the town where, four decades earlier, Kennedy concluded his own tour of impoverished Appalachia. "I want you to join us," Edwards told his audience, "to end the work Bobby Kennedy started."

Kennedy's crusade against poverty enthralled many Americans. So far, Edwards's crusade has not. Hoping for heavy press coverage for the poverty tour, the former North Carolina senator's campaign enlisted a national media entourage to travel with him on a large chartered jet. But by the time the tour reached its halfway point, Edwards was barely making the national papers.

Even the candidate's own wife, Elizabeth, managed to steal some of her husband's spotlight. On day two of the tour, Salon.com published an interview with Elizabeth in which she said front runner Hillary Clinton was not necessarily "as good an advocate for women" as Edwards. Edwards denied that his wife's comments detracted from his poverty message. "Anything can attract attention away," he said. "If Senator Obama went out and said something outrageous, that would attract attention away." But Barack Obama is a rival candidate, a NEWSWEEK reporter pointed out; the Edwardses were on the same team. Surely, husband and wife coordinated their messages. Edwards raised his eyebrows: "You think so?"

There is something tragic about Edwards's failure to break through. Today, 37 million Americans live below the poverty line, 12 million more than at the time of Kennedy's death. And yet Edwards's call of conscience has not resonated. By all rights, Edwards, the son of a millworker, should have an easier time talking about poverty than did Kennedy, the son of a millionaire. His difficulty speaks to the candidate's inability to connect. It also speaks to the nation's inability to be moved.

John Edwards is too perfect to be Robert Kennedy. In popular memory, all Kennedys are immaculately tailored and silver-tongued. But Robert was not John; the younger Kennedy's hair was wild and unkempt, his tie was eternally askew, his eyes were lined with crow's-feet from too many hours in the sun. At political rallies, his voice would wobble and his hands would shake. In his biography "Robert Kennedy: His Life," NEWSWEEK's Evan Thomas describes Kennedy the politician as "childlike," a frightened younger son who "loved ice cream and squirmed on a dais." This vulnerability was Kennedy's special grace. In the boy peeking out behind the curtain of manly toughness, Americans, especially the poor, saw themselves. Like them, he suffered and struggled greatly.

Edwards too has suffered. He was born into poverty; his eldest son was killed in a car accident at the age of 16; his wife is fighting bravely against terminal cancer. But he shows no sign of struggle. His face is tan but unaged. His famous hair is not just well coiffed, it is nearly immobile and lacks even a touch of gray. Edwards says his notorious $400 haircut and his 28,000-square-foot house are the obsessions of the media, not "normal voters." (He does have a snarkier press corps than RFK. Not only did reporters not criticize the size of Kennedy's Virginia mansion, they wrote fawning prose about the senator in the hopes of scoring an invitation. …