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Edwards Hate-Talk

By William F. Buckley

I heard a plainspoken, sophisticated man of affairs, with a background of public service, make a statement not to be confused with a stump speech. It was for that reason all the more arresting. "The thing I regret most about the political scene," he said, "is that, as a Republican, I won't have an opportunity to vote against John Edwards in the primary." I gushed with the pride of tribal fidelity, as if running into a Christian in the middle of a desert.

Is my friend's hostility to Edwards entirely ideological? No. It is also, like mine, personal. I just don't like his cultivated appeal to the bleachers, combined with the carefully trimmed hairdo. And maybe, most of all, the carefully maintained Southern accent, which you can hear him practicing before his lucrative appearances before the juries who listened to him and believed that they were listening to a brother, a good old Southerner, with all the right instincts for justice.

He is a prosperous-looking man, and this makes the picture all the more piquant, because prosperous-looking men are expected to be drawn to their likes -- you know, other folk who went to Hotchkiss and Yale. The underlying purpose here is to surprise the listener by expressing yourself as 100 percent on the other side. Which side? The side of poor people, of disadvantaged people, of people who want and deserve -- more.

In decades gone by I have from time to time wondered at the self-flagellatory submission of the American capitalist class. If you want to attract favorable attention from plutocrats at home and abroad, it hurts you not one bit to be contemptuous of American capitalist practices. Here is the Edwards formulation:

"President Bush honors and respects only wealth." What? When did that happen? Bush has never turned his eyes or his concerns away from what Mr. Edwards would call ordinary Americans. "He wants to be certain that those who have it keep it." But shouldn't economic security be the goal of all Americans? Edwards says this kind of thing in tones that suggest that if you favor security for the rich you are undermining the prospects of the poor. He is 100 percent wrong.

"(Bush) comes from a world where wealth is largely inherited, not earned. That is not the world I come from. ... The difference between George Bush and John Edwards is, while he honors and respects only wealth, I honor and respect hard work. I honor and respect responsibility. I believe in opportunity. He's about building barriers and closing doors; I'm about exactly the opposite. I want to knock barriers down. I want to open doors."

I mean, can you stand it? That is political rhetoric of the kind we got a generation ago from the fire-breathing populists, as also from conniving communists and dogmatic socialists. There are 2 million Americans who, on the income scale, are members of the upper class. It has been estimated that about 80 percent of these made their way to affluence by hard work, good luck, and a willingness to participate in a competitive economy. You'll find just as many descendants of Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller struggling to stay afloat as descendants of Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther. Eighty percent of American millionaires are first-generation wealthy.

John Edwards, who has about 20 percent of the Democratic delegates within his reach, certainly seems to believe that politicians who want to succeed should clothe themselves in populist formulations. But young politicians seeking success might wonder at the dangers of being too obvious about changing one's positions on public policies.

The New York Times, in its seigneurial manner, judges Edwards to have gone a little too far. In its Jan. 25 editorial, the Times appreciates his "fiery oratory," but goes on to regret that "we cannot support his candidacy. The former senator from North Carolina has repudiated so many of his earlier positions, so many of his Senate votes, that we're not sure where he stands."

Where he stands is in the long line of critics of America who believe they can prosper politically by edging the American ethos over to left-welfarism. It's reassuring that Mr. Edwards, for all his pitch and fire against American success, should himself be prepared to join the ranks of the failed political class.

Copyright 2008, Universal Press Syndicate

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