Giving Edwards a Pass

Posted: Jul 09, 2004 12:00 AM

 It?s tempting to compare Sen. John Edwards with former Vice President Dan Quayle. But that would be unfair.

To Dan Quayle.

 Sixteen years ago, a presidential candidate picked a 41-year-old senator from a medium sized state to be his vice presidential candidate. The media response was swift.

 ?Try to imagine Dan Quayle as President of the United States,? wrote columnist Anthony Lewis in The New York Times. ?No one seriously argues that he is especially qualified by experience or character or talent to take over the presidency.? Why is that, Mr. Lewis? ?Sen. Quayle is -- to put it more politely than many have -- without weight. He has done virtually nothing in the Senate of an original or substantive kind.?

 Time magazine?s Margaret Carlson piled on. ?There are signs that Quayle has been growing in his job, that he is no longer (if he ever was) the dumb blond his detractors claim,? she wrote, generously. ?But he is still a long way from having the temperament and experience needed in the person a heartbeat and a brain wave away from the presidency.?

 This year, a presidential candidate has tapped a 51-year-old senator from a medium-sized state to be his vice presidential candidate. But this time the media response was somewhat different.

 ?Mr. Edwards, the son of a millworker and a postal worker, appears down-to-earth and trustworthy, a fellow who strikes a chord on values as well as issues,? wrote Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. The only potential downside Kristof sees? ?Sure, Mr. Kerry might drop dead. Then we?d have a very inexperienced president -- again!? Obviously not something the columnist is too worried about.

 For Newsweek?s Howard Fineman, Edwards? inexperience is a potential positive. ?A mere five years after Edwards entered politics, this man in a hurry has arrived. He?s talented, and fortune favors the brash.?

David Broder, the dean of the Washington press corps, also brushed off the vice presidential candidate?s inexperience. ?Edwards has shown an uncanny ability to connect with both core Democratic constituencies and independent voters in every campaign he has run,? he wrote in The Washington Post, ignoring the fact that Edwards has run in all of two campaigns, and that he won only a single Democratic presidential primary.

 Now, Edwards is certainly charismatic. But let?s use Anthony Lewis? standard. Is the North Carolinian ?especially qualified by experience? to be vice president? Well, when his background is compared with what Quayle?s was in 1988, it?s Edwards who is found wanting.

Consider: When George Bush 41 tapped Indiana?s junior senator, Quayle had eight years of Senate experience under his belt, plus two terms in the House. By contrast, Edwards is finishing out his first Senate term.

In addition, Edwards has spent much of the last year or so on the road, campaigning for president. Back in January, Congressional Quarterly magazine reported Edwards had missed more than half of the recorded senate votes on issues where the White House had taken a position. It?s fair to say he?s been less than focused on his career as a lawmaker.

While Quayle served in the Senate, Newsday called him, ?a point man for the right on the Senate Armed Services Committee,? and said he?d ?played a leading role in making technical challenges to the INF treaty -- among other things, compelling Secretary of State George Shultz to ask the Soviets for clarifications.? There?s that ?temperament and experience? Carlson claimed he lacked.

Edwards, on the other hand, has been almost disconnected from foreign policy. He serves on four committees, but three of them deal exclusively with domestic issues. Even after Sept. 11, his campaign stump speech didn?t mention terrorism. Instead, he claims there are ?two Americas,? one a bright, sunny place for the wealthy, the other a dark, forbidding place for the rest of us.

But if there were another attack, the terrorists would be happy to kill people from either America. After all, it wasn?t simply investment bankers who died in the World Trade Center -- busboys at the Windows on the World restaurant were among the victims. A qualified vice presidential candidate would have a strong public position on the War on Terror.

The real difference between the candidates is that Quayle was a surprise pick, rolled out at the Republican convention with no advance warning. The press corps didn?t know him. Worse, they didn?t respect him, so they savaged him.

Edwards, on the other hand, has been seeking the presidency for years.

Members of the media know him, like him, and are prepared to ignore his lack of experience. It?s all about the care and feeding of the media beast.

During the Democratic primaries, Sen. Kerry asked his aides, ?What makes [Edwards] think he can be president?? What a pity that the press pack, so quick to shred Quayle in 1988, isn?t interested in answering that question.