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See Dad run

Jack and Emma Claire Edwards produce an unscripted sideshow.

August 13, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

North Little Rock, Ark. — Every family has been there. Summer is starting to wind down. Camps have run their course. And another school year won't begin for several long, hot weeks.

August stretches out forever, unless you are a brother and sister named Jack and Emma Claire. Into the small laps of these siblings -- ages 4 and 6, respectively -- fell a road trip for the ages. It would take them 5,000 miles on planes, trains and buses. It would take them across most of America, from Boston to Baton Rouge, La., to New Mexico and back home to North Carolina.

Along the way, they visited SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., and the zoo in Kansas City, Mo. They got new backpacks, snapped pictures, kept a journal, learned to shoot dice (and win a few dollars) and, oh, yes, watched their dad run for vice president of the United States.

Neatly turned out in shorts (for him) and flowery sun dresses (for her), the youngest children of John Edwards produced a guileless and unscripted sideshow for the studied main act -- their father and John F. Kerry's 15-day "Believe in America" tour, which ends today in Oregon.

The Edwards children had enjoyed earlier forays with their father during the campaign season. They especially liked that snowball-tossing state, "New Hampster," where Dad finished fourth back in January. But this was something entirely different. Something entirely bigger.

At virtually every turn over the last two weeks, cheers and smiles greeted Jack and Emma. They cavorted with usually unsmiling Secret Service agents and charmed those professional naysayers, the media, into assembling an on-plane playground.

Republicans who turned out to lambaste the Democrats at many stops pocketed their down-turned thumbs and smiled when Jack Edwards waved fervently in their direction.

The small blonds might not win their 51-year-old father a single vote come November, but in midsummer they certainly helped keep him grounded. Partisan huzzahs rained down on North Carolina Sen. Edwards after his speech at the Democratic National Convention. But 6-year-old Emma waited backstage to ask: "Is the meeting finally over?"

Mother and potential Second Lady Elizabeth Edwards would like to believe her children have been so well received because they "are just so particularly adorable." But she guessed that something deeper might be at play. "People want to feel good about families and children," she said. "It bridges that divide. And people don't want to be divided."

*

Boy with a mike

Jack and Emma's excellent adventure began at the end of the Democratic convention. Even as Kerry reached the final imploring lines of his acceptance speech late the night of July 29, Jack was backstage at Boston's FleetCenter, tugging at his mother's hem.

"Mommy, Mommy," he said, "I need to say something."

"OK, son, what do you need to say?" Elizabeth Edwards answered.

"No, no, I need the microphone!" Jack said. Attempting reassurance, he added: "It will only take a minute."

Young Jack had to forgo a national television audience and settle for a chance to stand onstage and swat red, white and blue balloons. He also rode on the shoulders of Chris Heinz, stepson of the Democratic presidential nominee.

The next morning, in a Boston park overlooking a whaling schooner and the Mystic River, the road trip began. Jack was bleary-eyed from too little sleep and soon crying from a stubbed toe. A smile quickly returned, though, when he discovered that the cardboard handle of his "Kerry-Edwards" placard could be transformed into a telescope.

For the rest of the trip, the elder Edwardses had a rule: The kids would appear in public only when they wanted to. Otherwise, they could cocoon inside the plush touring bus or take side trips with their nanny.

Mostly, Jack and Emma opted for the splendor of their bus, with its icy air conditioning and soft leather sofas. There, they worked assiduously on their coloring books. Emma -- shyer and more focused, like her father -- logged one- or two-word descriptions in kindergarten scrawl ("Westin") into her journal. And Mom filled low moments by breaking out the "Kerry-Edwards Songbook," a three-ring binder filled with offerings such as "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."

Another playmate along for the first part of the ride was big sister Cate, 22, a recent Princeton graduate who is taking time off before beginning a job at Vanity Fair.

The Edwards campaign plane provided even headier recreation. On the first flight, from Toledo, Ohio, to Miami on Aug. 1, an NBC cameraman fashioned a basketball hoop out of an empty Corona 12-pack box, mounting his creation with duct tape in the rear galley.

While his parents relaxed up front, Jack scored a series of hoop victories, benefiting not only from an inventive, underhand shot but also from a preschooler's creative math. He then learned to bowl -- with empty bottles serving as pins -- and to play a dice game (Left, Right, Center).

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