More Than Just Talk
By BOB HERBERT
It was a nice moment. The sky was filled with thick, dark clouds and a monsoonlike storm was on its way, but there was the presidential candidate, John Edwards, in work boots, jeans and a navy blue shirt, talking with a handful of neighborhood people gathered outside a house that was being built in the Ninth Ward.
The former senator was there for a photo-op and the chat wouldn’t last long. But the people, most of them young, were excited to see him. They listened thoughtfully and asked a number of questions.
The scene was immensely more appealing than the overly scripted televised “debates” that feature sleep-inducing nonanswers from an army of candidates browbeaten by moderators wielding stopwatches.
New Orleans has not been a hot topic at those upscale gatherings. Much of the city is still in ruins, still in “terrible shape,” as Mr. Edwards noted. During a lengthy interview that followed his talk with the local residents, he told me that what had been allowed to happen to New Orleans was “an embarrassment for America” and that as president he would put the power of the federal government squarely behind its revival.
He said he would appoint a high-level official to take charge of the rebuilding, and he would have that person “report to me” every day. He said he would create 50,000 “steppingstone jobs,” in parks, recreation facilities and a variety of community projects, for New Orleans residents who have been unable to find any other work. And he said, “We’re also going to have to rebuild these levees.”
(As if to underscore the last point, torrential rains on the same day as the interview caused dangerous flooding in the city. The levees were not an issue in this case. But the flooding occurred just as attention was being focused on serious flaws that have been found in repairs made to the levees after Hurricane Katrina.)
Mr. Edwards, who announced his campaign for the presidency in the Ninth Ward, has stood by his commitment to make poverty one of his big campaign issues. I mentioned that poverty has not gotten much attention from the national media, and asked why middle-class Americans should care about the issue.
“First, you should care because it’s a moral issue,” he said. “It tells us something about the character of our country. And, by the way, I think most people do care about it. And second, you should care because if you want to see the American economy grow and strengthen over time, the strength and breadth of the middle class is a critical factor. When we have middle-class families struggling on the edge, falling into poverty or near poverty, those things weaken the American economy.”
It’s not a good sign, said Mr. Edwards, to have so much of the middle class hanging on by its fingertips at the same time that the ranks of the poor are growing. There are about 37 million Americans living below the poverty line, five million more than when President Bush took office.
In an essay in the recently published book “Ending Poverty in America,” which he co-edited, Mr. Edwards wrote: “The real story is not the number but the people behind the number. The men, women and children living in poverty — one in eight of us — do not have enough money for the food, shelter, and clothing they need. One in eight. That is not a problem. That is not a challenge. That is a plague.”
Mr. Edwards, the founder and former director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said poverty has proved to be so intractable because there are so many contributing factors. It’s an extremely complex problem, and there is no one solution, no silver bullet.
As president, he said, he would push hard for a “significant” increase in the minimum wage, would expand the earned income tax credit, would insist on making it easier for workers to organize, and would focus a substantial portion of his administration’s energy on achieving concrete improvements in education, housing and health care.
It’s true that promises from politicians come at us like weeds on steroids. But the nation would get a clearer picture of the character, integrity and leadership qualities of individual candidates if the press would focus more intently on matters of substance.
As a rule, we’re much more interested in gaffes than in the details of a candidate’s position on a complex issue. We’re much more interested in sound bites than in sound policy.
That should change. We should give the candidates time to speak. And we should listen.