In the final, frigid days leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, the presidential campaign of Senator John Edwards was struggling. While Howard Dean was packing in hundreds and even thousands at his angerfests, Edwards wasn't a big enough draw to fill even the double-wide mobile home where one of his supporters was hosting a house party for him in Chariton, Iowa. It was just before Christmas 2003, and there were, Edwards recalls now, "10 or 15 people" waiting to hear him make his case. For the candidate who had been lauded as the next Bill Clinton not so many months before, it was a depressing nadir. "I remember thinking to myself, 'What are you doing?'" says Edwards. "It just felt like I had no chance whatsoever."
Edwards was scheduled to deliver one last big speech before the caucuses. It would be his closing argument to persuade voters to take a chance on a sunny former trial lawyer whose political experience consisted of one run for office. That used to be his specialty, charming and winning over skeptical juries to side with his clients on case after case in North Carolina. But for all Edwards' gifts with language, for all his skill at speaking on behalf of the ordinary men, women and children he had represented in the courtroom, he was strangely at a loss when it came to framing a case for himself.
It was Christina Reynolds, the campaign's research director and an aide who had been with Edwards since his Senate race in 1998, who came up with the formulation. He was most compelling, she told him, when he talked about the disparities between the way rich people and poor people live in this country: two school systems, two kinds of health care, two tax codes. It was what fired up his passion in those closing arguments; it was the case for himself. "What you've been talking about," she said, "is two Americas."
The speech got little attention when Edwards first tried it out in Des Moines, Iowa, on Dec. 29. Delivered from behind a lectern, the "two Americas" refrain sounded like the familiar trope of class warfare. "One America does the work while another America reaps the reward," Edwards intoned. "One America pays the taxes while another America gets the tax breaks." But as Edwards took it on the road—into living rooms and union halls and diners and high school gyms—it grew and evolved into something much, much bigger, into a cause. "The more I talked about it, the more it became internal," Edwards says. "I understood pretty quickly after that, this is who I am. This is what I believe. It is my own life story, and I could connect it to parts of my own life—to some of the inequality that I had seen, racial and economic inequality, what I'd seen in some of the schools. All these things started fitting together."
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