Historians Discuss John Edwards and Role of Vice President
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KWAME HOLMAN: John Edwards’ path to the podium in Boston to address the delegates tonight began in South Carolina, where Edwards was born 51 years ago. He grew up across the border in Tiny Robbins, North Carolina. Both parents worked at a local mill, and Edwards would become the first in his family to attend college.
He graduated from North Carolina State University in 1974 and later from the University of North Carolina Law School. There, he met Elizabeth Anania. They married in 1977. Son, Wade, was born three years later; daughter, Catherine, in 1982. Edwards set up shop as a plaintiff’s attorney in North Carolina, specializing in personal injury cases, and quickly earned a reputation as a gifted courtroom orator.
JOHN EDWARDS: Oh, I’d wanted to be a lawyer as a dream at least since I was young. I think a lot of it was just driven by my… either from television and from reading, my perception that lawyers could stand up for people who needed someone to fight for them and stand up for them.
KWAME HOLMAN: Standing up also paid off — Edwards won court judgments that made his clients, and soon him, millionaires. In 1996, tragedy struck, when 16-year-old Wade was killed in an auto accident. Following his son’s death, Edwards and his wife decided to have two more children. Emma Claire was born in 1998, and Jack in 2000.
Edwards also decided to choose a course Wade had hoped he would — the pursuit of political office. Running for public office for the first time in 1998, Edwards won a U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina, defeating Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth.
In the Senate, Edwards took a lead role in defending President Clinton during the impeachment proceedings. Edwards also used his courtroom skills on the Senate floor to advocate for the right of patients to sue their health maintenance organizations. Then, in January 2003, Edwards announced that he would make a run for the White House.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: My job will be to present the American people with a clear choice, a different choice, an alternative vision for America. My vision for America will be routed in my perspective of championing the cause of regular people.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: You think we could get some more people in this room?
( Laughter ) I’ll tell you — this is exciting!
KWAME HOLMAN: Edwards would prove to be a crowd-pleaser in the early going in Iowa and New Hampshire. He crept up in Democratic polls, using a rousing stump speech that hinged on a populist pitch.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: We have so much work to do in this country. We still live in an America that in so many ways is two different Americas: One for all those folks who are in positions of privilege and power, who get everything they need whenever they need it, and then, the other America.
You and I can change that. We can build one America where we don’t have two health care systems– one for families that can afford the best health care money can buy in a country that’s got it, and one for everybody else.
KWAME HOLMAN: Edwards finished a surprising second to John Kerry in the Iowa caucuses and tied for third in New Hampshire. But his lone victory was the South Carolina primary. And Kerry’s near-perfect winning record on Super Tuesday ended Edwards’ presidential campaign.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: We have been the little engine that could, and I am proud of what we’ve done together, you and I. ( Cheers and applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: Edwards, who even as the primaries were ending was being mentioned as a vice presidential pick, praised the presumptive nominee.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: The truth of the matter is that John Kerry has what it takes right here to be president of the United States and I for one intend to do everything in my power to make him the next president of the United States. And I ask you to join me in this cause for our country, for our America…. ( cheers and applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: On July 6, John Kerry let his choice be known.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I am pleased to announce that with your help, the next vice president of the United States of America will be Sen. John Edwards from North Carolina.
KWAME HOLMAN: The next day, the Democratic ticket posed for pictures with their families on Teresa Heinz Kerry’s farm outside Pittsburgh.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: People are desperate to believe again that tomorrow will be better than today. That’s what John Kerry represents for American people. He represents hope.
KWAME HOLMAN: But tonight, it’s all about John Edwards, as he makes the most anticipated speech of his life.
RAY SUAREZ: Helping us look back tonight, as they’ve been doing all week, are NewsHour regulars Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith. They’re joined by Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American History at the University of New Hampshire.
Now earlier this afternoon, Convention Chairman Governor Bill Richardson gaveled the convention to order and said any last minute vice presidential nominating petitions are still being accepted until 9 tomorrow morning.
Now have we ever… when is the last time we got this far into a convention without really knowing who the vice presidential nominee was going to be, Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That’s a bit of a trick question because we went into the 1988 Republican Convention not knowing who the first George Bush’s running mate would be. Bush wanted to inject some excitement, some suspense, he wanted to hype the ratings, get the country watching.
And they paid a price for spontaneity arguably because they announced Dan Quayle, 41-year-old senator from Indiana, not well known nationally and many thought not properly vetted. A firestorm erupted that afternoon over allegations concerning whether or not Quayle had improperly used his family’s influence to get into the National Guard rather than serve in Vietnam.
Quayle actually gave a decent acceptance speech and when he finally did meet with the press, did just fine. By that time he had already been stamped in some ways and it could be argued that he really never got over it.
RAY SUAREZ: Has that vetting sort of become institutionalized now, what Richard refers to as the vetting?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think so. I think the really – the last Democratic Convention where this was really up for grabs — in 1976, the choice was not announced until the very end of the convention. But in 1972, McGovern really didn’t have anyone when the convention was over. There was a move afoot to draft Ted Kennedy. There was discussion about that and Kennedy declined.
And then McGovern said that he would go to the party elders and ask for advice. Well, we know the outcome of that was not good, and the choice of Eagleton and the subsequent problems that developed has led, I think over time, to a very careful attempt ahead of time to make sure there are no major problems, and to do this well in advance of the convention itself.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael, walk us through how it happened that the parties pretty much stopped picking and candidates started picking their own running mates.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, at the beginning of American history, of course, the vice president would be the second person, the person who got the second largest amount of votes. But in recent times, people realized that vice presidents are important parts of tickets and increasingly important people, so it’s been a tradition that the nominee chooses someone that he likes with one exception.
In 1956, Adlai Stevenson was nominated the second time in Chicago, and he thought the convention was really boring and people were not watching enough, something that we think is only said about recent conventions.
And so he thought the way to liven this up is let’s just throw it open to the delegates and so he said I’m just going to let the delegates on the floor choose a vice president. Came down after a number of ballots between John Kennedy of Massachusetts, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Kefauver won and so the result was that Stevenson was saddled with someone he really did not like and was not a very good choice.
RAY SUAREZ: What about the conventions themselves? Have they served as an opportunity for really a coming out for a vice presidential candidate, an anointing as a national figure?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah. One very good example is in ’68, you had the Democratic Convention that tore itself apart on national television and then Hubert Humphrey announced Ed Musky — this calm, soothing, Lincolnesque figure from the state of Maine who again very few Americans knew about at the time. He was an instant success.
By contrast, you could go back to 1964. Barry Goldwater picked a deservedly obscure congressman from Buffalo named William E. Miller for one reason, because he said he drove Lyndon Johnson nuts.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Which he later did.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Miller didn’t flop so much as he lived down to his expectations.
RAY SUAREZ: Has this been a choice that is something that lifts a ticket? Do we even know whether it makes that much difference to presidents and their running mates?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think it makes a difference in many ways. Certainly from the point of view of political strategy it makes a difference. In 1960, of course, John Kennedy’s choice of Lyndon Johnson led to, you know, headlines in The New York Times that this was explicitly a calculated political decision in picking Johnson in an attempt to strengthen Kennedy’s appeal to the South.
And by the same token, people questioned the choice of Al Gore by Bill Clinton thinking well here’s a southerner, someone from Arkansas, why would he pick someone from Tennessee. But I think it does provide an opportunity to strengthen the ticket.
It is obviously a very important decision. And it has, however, as you pointed out, increasingly become a decision of the candidate, a political and a personal decision who do I feel comfortable with, who will make a good partner for me in this long journey that lies ahead.
RAY SUAREZ: In the last three weeks there has been a lot of talk about John Edwards’ campaigning skills. Have any running mates really proven their value during the fall campaign by sort of living beyond their billing? Turning out to be formidable campaigners?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Lyndon Johnson knew his forte was not, you know, giving a stump speech. He looked like a cigar store Indian. The result was that he chose Hubert Humphrey who was famous for doing this, would give these great speeches, all Americans believe in Social Security and all these other things but not Sen. Goldwater. And he was able to bring to Johnson what he did not have, make the case in a way that Johnson couldn’t, and we may be seeing history repeat itself tonight.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: There was one political speech that we are not likely to see given tonight. In 1900, the New York delegation nominated one of their own to be vice president, and there was a tremendous outpouring, a 12-minute ovation on the floor of the convention. And the nominee, David Hill, stood up and gave what was described as an indignant denunciation of his own nomination and said under no circumstances would he serve. Now that’s… that would have been an incredibly refreshing see to see but we are not going to see that.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Mention a self aware politician. Beyond the hustings or traditional hustings are the electronic hustings and the debate, now a recent development of vice presidential debates. We have one every four years. The interesting this is, I would argue at least, that you could look at Walter Mondale in ’76, Lloyd Bentsen in ’88 and arguably Dick Cheney in ’96, all of whom won their debates — it is hard to see what that contributed to election day either to the defeat or to the victory of the ticket.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, we’ll talk some more later. Thanks a lot.