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What Happened to John Edwards?

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

He was back again on Wednesday, never so eloquent as in withdrawing from the Democratic race for the presidential nomination.

It was the John Edwards we haven't seen much of this year, the one who was positive, optimistic, full of hope, praising his opponents, appealing to the better angels of our nature, the one who seemed to come from nowhere four years ago to the front of the Democratic pack and sometimes angered the Kerry managers by not wanting to play the attack dog with sufficient vigor when he was in the No. 2 slot.

The John Edwards who ran for president this year was different. He was an angry man.

Now, some people will say Edwards never really had a chance this year, not running against two rock stars, the first woman, the first black, two larger than life candidates who sucked all the oxygen from the room, all the attention from the media, all the money from the pool of Democratic donors.

I'm not so sure. In a year that feels like it should be bright Blue, the truth is that many Democrats I talk to are legitimately worried that, with either of the two candidates left in the race, we are venturing into the unknown, the black box of hidden prejudice and bias and Clinton-hating and racism, taking a chance at a time when the only way we could lose is by taking a chance. As a friend succinctly put it: This is the year for a safe white man. That is what Al Gore's supporters kept telling him, and why so many of them were so frustrated by his decision to sit out the race. A safe white man couldn't lose. Only a woman or a black could lose.

But John Edwards, the 2008 version, didn't run for president as a safe white man. He didn't run as a uniter. He didn't run, as he did in 2004, a positive campaign focused on what America could be.

He ran as an angry man, angry not only at the injustice of poverty, but at the greed of corporate America, a rich man angry at other rich men, a populist with a mansion in North Carolina and a tough-talking wife who, when she wasn't out campaigning, was sorting her children's clothes so he wouldn't have to do it after she dies. Not an easy picture. Not one that rang true.

Barack Obama appeals to people by offering them hope, a positive vision of a movement to change America. Hillary Clinton appeals to people by offering them a return to the peace and prosperity that seem like such a distant memory, a return to a time when people could literally spend years debating the president's personal life because we weren't fighting a war and worrying about our own jobs at home. Those were the days. Those could be the days.

John Edwards has plenty to be angry about. If I were him, I'd be mad as hell, not necessarily about the injustices facing others, but at those his own family has been forced to deal with, at the loss of a much-loved son and the sickness of a much-loved and loving wife and mother. But John Edwards is also a very lucky man, a mill worker's son who made millions -- proof that the American dream still comes true, some of the time.

The John Edwards who ran four years ago tapped into that faith in America, that belief in hard work, that understanding that it is our values and our character, the positive lights, that shine brightest, especially in hard times. That is why John Edwards nearly won Iowa four years ago and why he probably would have, had the campaign gone a week or so longer. He lit up any room he entered with a positive light. John Edwards the angry populist didn't feel right. It didn't seem like it was really him. And it certainly didn't seem like it was really us.

See Other Political Commentaries

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

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