NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina seems like a decent and likable man, the political equivalent of a handsome, slightly under-ripe bunch of bananas, just the thing if you are looking for bananas and can't find any ripe ones, or don't know the difference. But I can't believe the public is going to buy this act. Last week, I heard an admiring TV pundit explain, to general agreement from his fellows, that Edwards' "two Americas speech" is his No. 1 asset, followed closely by his self-made-man, up-from-the-working-class life story. The problem is, they cancel each other out.
That "two Americas" stuff suggests a country divided by a barricade, with the poor stuck on one side and the rich living it up on the other. We know this is false. Economic historians keep telling us so; they love talking about the high "mobility among income quintiles" that continues to typify this country. American society is a perpetual-motion machine, with constant movement from poor to medium to rich (and, sometimes, back again).
More important to the campaign: Edwards' life story shows that his message is false. If your story is "poor boy makes good," your message can't possibly be "this is a two-part nation where poor boys are prevented from making good." Exactly how dumb are the voters supposed to be? And if the real, implicit message is different -- "Sure, you can get over the barricade, but it's so tough that only geniuses like John Edwards can make it" -- I doubt this version will play any better.
Edwards' whole campaign shtick suggests he's a regular guy, just plain folks, a slob like us. So if he got over this barricade (or barrier or whatever it is), why can't anyone who really wants to? Answer: Anyone can, and everyone knows it. Edwards' story says so loud and clear. This is still the land of opportunity, where a talented working-class boy can grow up to be stinking rich and even be (a candidate for vice) president.
Benjamin Disraeli had a very different society in view when he first introduced "the two nations" idea in his novel "Sybil" in 1845. He was one of Britain's greatest prime ministers, and a charter neoconservative. (He started life as a radical left-winger.) And he is the founder of the progressive conservatism that has dominated the American presidency in recent decades. (Disraeli's idea was that conservatives and liberals were equally progressive; they differed insofar as liberals were detached from the past and looked to the international community for advice and approval; conservatives were detached from the international community and looked to the past for advice and approval -- to their ancestors, their national history, their cultural heritage.)
Disraeli's "Sybil" made the dramatic claim that the queen reigned over two separate nations, "two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy ... who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners and are not governed by the same laws ... THE RICH AND THE POOR." (Victorians were too robust to be scared of capital letters.)
A brilliant stroke by a brilliant man: Traditional British society was divided, like a jumbo lawn tennis court, by a barrier of class and wealth that few Britons ever leapt. But American society isn't, and never was. Not only does Edwards' life clash with his message, his message never did make much sense.
Of course, if you don't have a job and you think Edwards will somehow help you get one, you couldn't care less about the logical consistency or historical validity of his campaign message. But how exactly is this retired trial lawyer going to convince anyone or his dog that he has the answer to unemployment? That is rich. How many people have been thrown out of work because of exorbitant insurance rates forced by lawsuit terror -- rates that close down businesses while obscenely rich trial lawyers get richer? There are plenty of fine, upstanding trial lawyers out there (presumably). But damned few of them have the nerve to present themselves as champions of the unemployed.
Yet Edwards is on to something, in a way. Consider this proposition. "There is something out of whack about the connection between the U.S. economy and U.S. society. The wiring is fouled or the pipes are cracked or something, because the wrong activities (like trial lawyering) keep getting encouraged and rewarded. We need to think this problem through and solve it."
That I believe. What I can't believe is that Edwards will ever say it.