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Poverty and the Trial of John Edwards

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Message John Horton

The human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost

-Robert Penn Warren, All the Kings Men

As the trial of John Edwards begins this week in North Carolina, one cannot help but think back to the greatest American political novel, All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren. It tells the story of Willie Stark, a backwoods lawyer and salesperson who begins his political career fighting for a corrupt system that has resulted in the deaths of schoolchildren.   Stark goes on to become Governor, a presidential candidate and de facto dictator. He accomplishes all of this by running against the seated interests of his state and by promising the "others" of his state a better future. Likewise, John Edwards, the son of a millworker, through sheer talent and intelligence became a famous lawyer, senator, and presidential candidate. He too spoke of two Americas much like the fictional Stark and seemed destined to be President by rallying those left behind.

But, as Warren wrote, human beings are complicated and all good comes with bad. Edwards through his own faults, a victim of his own ambition, actions and malfeasances destroyed himself. For someone who campaigned against those with power, he fixated on obtaining it and in turn acted like those he previously criticized. Much like Stark, he betrayed his closest supporters including his wife and family. While Stark's downfall is the makings of an exceptional novel, Edwards' fall from grace is all too real with overarching implications that stretch beyond the grief imparted upon his family.

One of the central themes of Edwards' two presidential and senatorial campaigns was creating a national movement to combat poverty - a cause near and dear to the son of a mill-worker. As he wrote in his book Ending Poverty in America,

The public debate on poverty policies is stuck in a rut. One side downplays the importance of strong families and personal responsibility. The other side is driven by a deep skepticism of what government can accomplish. Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong: greater government efforts and greater personal responsibility are both necessary.

This is because forty years after the War on Poverty and fifty years after Michael Huffington's The Other America, 15 percent of Americans still live below the poverty line with 2.6 million people falling below in 2011. The income inequality between the richest and poorest is growing and median household income fell last year to 1996 levels. However, the focus of politicians, on both sides, remains trained on "the middle class." From an economic perspective, the middle class are essential for a recovering economy, but shouldn't reducing poverty be an essential ethical concern? With numbers as horrific as these which politician steps into this gap created by Edwards' downfall? No one.  

   The trial of John Edwards will certainly fascinate the news media for the next several weeks. The story of a golden boy turned outcast who is left to pick up the shattered fragments of a promise unfulfilled seems almost made for headlines. The real tragedy is the loss of a poverty crusader. A national political figure who started a campaign in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans and spoke of the hardships not just of the middle-class, who actually vote, but of those even less blessed. As the media absorbs enough sex, money, betrayal and ambition for two Greek tragedies perhaps it could find some time to step back and examine who is stepping forth to combat poverty, so that in this situation the devil may not take the hindmost.

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John Horton is a policy analyst. He has co-authored op-eds in the Miami Herald, Florida Sun-Sentinel, Michigan Chronicle, and Tallahassee Democrat. He currently resides in Washington, DC.
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