Transcription – Walter Shapiro Interview

Q:              You know, we haven’t talked very much about [01:20:00] John Edwards, who —

SHAPIRO:   Oh, I’m — words cannot describe.  Since my coverage of John Edwards — and I’ve written this — has been a bit of a personal embarrassment.  There is a famous scene in the middle of the Bob Woodward book on Iran-Contra, in which Bill Casey, the maverick CIA director, rogue director, is tracked down, supposedly by Woodward in his hospital bed, as he’s dying from a stroke.  And Woodward somehow gets him to answer one question: why did you do this?  And Casey says, “I believed.”  I fear I’m that way about the whole John Edwards, son-of-a-millworker, two Americas.

Q:              Well, but he was a phenomenon in that campaign.  He went from being [01:21:00]  a first-term senator to the runner-up in the Democratic presidential nomination, to a place on the national ballot.  So there’s something there to —

SHAPIRO:   There was something there.  And this — other people have theories about Joe Lieberman that, being the vice presidential nominee in 2000 really changed him.  That it gave Lieberman a sense of entitlement.  It made him used to having entourages.  It made him used to being — Secret Service protection, that once you have it, it’s hard to live without.  And there are — and Lord knows, I’ve had enough “where did we go wrong?” sessions with people very close to Edwards, particularly from 2004 and 2008.  And a common theory is that being Kerry’s vice president in 2004 [01:22:00] changed him.  Remember the Rielle Hunter scandal.  They met somewhere in the fall of 2005, as he’s getting ready to run for 2008.  And there’s part of me that would like to believe that I correctly judged John Edwards in 2004, and it only turned out to be wrong in retrospect, when he reacted badly to temptation, and then made a series of awful choices, while his wife was dying of cancer.

That was so upsetting to me, I’m going to take — (drinks water)

Q:              (laughs)

SHAPIRO:   Thus refreshed, we will go back to John Edwards.  [01:23:00] Now, one of the things about — as a journalist, I’m very scrupulous about is off-the-record.  And my original connection with John Edwards was that my wife, Meryl Gordon, a journalist, profiled him for Elle magazine shortly after the first vice presidential speculation, in April of 2001.  And Meryl said to me, “You really ought to go see this guy.  He’s really interesting.”  So I’m going to ask you to unplug me, because I have a visual aid that I will get.

Q:              OK.  (break in audio)

SHAPIRO:   I promised you a visual aid.  And here it is.  He holds up the picture.  This is John Edwards, beach shore of South Carolina, 2001 [01:24:00].  I am in the background.  This was taken by Edwards’ campaign photographer, personal staff photographer, and it says, “To Walter.  Great shot of you, John Edwards.”  J. Edwards.  And I have gone from having it on the wall in the adjoining room, to taking it down and putting it back in the closet, to feeling like, oh, my God, this is like Stalin airbrushing generals out of World War II pictures, and bringing it back.

But the relevant point that I was making was that I started following  Edwards as a political phenomenon, in the summer of 2001.  One of the more amazing dinners I had as a reporter is my wife and I had an off-the-record dinner with John and Elizabeth Edwards, at a restaurant [01:25:00] in Washington.  We split the check – called Olive’s about two and a half weeks after 9/11.  And my problem — my feeling about off-the-record dinners is, it didn’t occur to me to go back from an off-the-record dinner and type up my notes, in case, to have them in 30 or 40 years, where there’s no embargo.  So, while I remember the dinner a bit, it is amazing how much I don’t remember about my off-the-record dinner with John Edwards three weeks after 9/11.

But the point is, my book, in a lot of ways, started with — my wife and I went along as reporters on Edwards’ second trip to New Hampshire of his life, which was in July of 2002[01:26:00].  And watching Edwards in this environment, and watching — realizing that this was New Hampshire living room politics.  You know, talking to 50 or 100 Democrats, under the guise of campaigning for the New Hampshire state ticket, even though hitherto, he had not been terribly interested in New Hampshire state ticket, being a North Carolina Senator.  It just really allowed me to see his appeal close-up.  And it was quite impressive.

I also remember in something like December of 2002, when they were trying to set up the rules for trying suspects for Military commissions, and John Ashcroft came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Edwards was a junior member[01:27:00].  And I remember just watching.  And because Edwards was a junior member, it was like six hours into the hearing.  The cameras had gone home.  People had filed their stories, before Edwards got a chance to question Ashcroft.  And I remember him just eviscerating Ashcroft on just a series of simple libertarian points.  Now, you’re saying is, “What if?”  And it was just one of the most impressive bits of questioning I had seen before or since by a United States Senator.  Because generally, United States Senators are in the Joe Biden variety, where, of the 30-minute question period, 24 minutes are allocated to the questions, and six minutes might be allocated to the answer.  But this was John Edwards, the courtroom questioner.

And it is that moment of, [01:28:00] I do think there was something about social class in America, that for all his big houses, that John Edwards did get.  I mean, there was a large amount of slick phoniness about him, such as his anti-poverty institute, sort of died as soon as it was no longer an issue for him.  But I also saw the idea that, I think it’s conceivable that he could have been the strongest candidate against Bush in 2004.  And I know Elizabeth Edwards believed it.  Because it was almost, John is the only person who can beat George Bush, and we have to beat George Bush.  And both on the record and off the record, that was her mantra, pushing him forward.

Q:              Why, then do you think he was [01:29:00] ineffective in the vice presidential debate?  And I would say, generally, disappointing to the Kerry campaign, throughout the fall.

SHAPIRO:   I don’t have a full answer.  But I can maybe give you five partial theories.  Number one, the Kerry campaign, going back to my point earlier about the convention, was always, never hit Bush hard, always — never hit Cheney hard.  Always be deferential.  And I think that mucked up Edwards’s rhythm.  Number two, I think he was really having difficulty taking instruction from anyone.  I think number three, the natural antipathy between Kerry and Edwards that I talked about beforehand also affected the relationship.  And the fact that Edwards was not really allowed to [01:30:00] have his own advisors, this is traditional.  That vice presidents are handed their own advisors.  That’s one of the reasons why, shall we say, there was a mismatch between such people as Steve Schmidt from the 2008 McCain campaign and Sarah Palin, which was the basic plot of Game Change.  But all of this contributed to this, and maybe that John Edwards just didn’t do his homework enough.