Somewhere on the road to a "John Edwards for President" event at a middle school in an Iowa Mississippi River community, I took a wrong turn. This set me cruising along a battered Main Street before turning into a neighborhood of bedraggled clapboard residences in the declining industrial town of Keokuk, population 11,500. A gaunt, elderly woman sat on a porch and watched me turn my car around, her white hair yellowed with age and pulled into a tight bun, her housedress loose around her wrinkled, skinny arms. On the main avenue, the store signs looked like they hadn't been updated since her youth. Some shops were shuttered. It was like a Detroit in miniature, but crossed with a dusty Western town of cinematic lore.
Located in what Des Moines sophisticates call the armpit of Iowa, Keokuk is wedged between Illinois and Missouri on a spit of land heading south off the bottom of Iowa's flat border into the triangle where the mighty Mississippi meets its tributary Iowa River. The massive changes our economy has undergone -- from heavy manufacturing to today's 80 percent service sector -- has left scars across this strip of land. There, for the Edwards' campaign event, a message of economic populism and skepticism of globalization seemed as natural a fit as the hawks that coasted overhead.
A team of documentary photographers had followed Edwards on his trip. But to really understand his campaign, and why he's remained strong in Iowa, you have to turn the cameras around.
"All the river communities in Iowa, it's pretty much industry [that had been the base], and it's tough in these areas economically," Keokuk Chief of Police Thomas L. Crew explained after Edwards finished his pitch. "Overall our population is declining."
The town's steel plant is gone, Crew explained. The grain milling facility now produces corn syrup for a French firm. The automotive parts manufacturer that used to supply General Motors now supplies an Italian company. "All of those things have cut back," he said. And those are the ones still open. "They've gone elsewhere. Some of those plants have gone to Mexico, and they've gone to China and other places."
The big plant outside of town that used to produce trailer truck beds is a rare success story, having been taken over by German electronics firm Siemens to produce blades for wind generators, part of the small but growing local non-ethanol green energy sector. Up the river in Burlington, once the capital of the Iowa Territory, retiree Jan Elschlager pleaded with Edwards after he spoke: "We need high-paying jobs to keep the children here. … We need high-paying jobs, not just small jobs."
Edwards, son of a mill worker, is running as the candidate of the places like these, the places time forgot. His challenge, though, in defending a vanishing way of life -- and it was a very good way of life, as I learned at an Ankeny cookout I attended with a unionized John Deere welder whose high school education and more than two decades on the job now put him in the range of a $75,000 salary in an environment where three-bedroom homes can still be had for $200,000 -- is that he himself left it behind more than 30 years ago.
In 2004, Edwards won the counties in the Des Moines media market, while John Kerry swept these declining rural hamlets. This cycle, Edwards is targeting them hard. Still, it's been difficult for some to reconcile Edwards' $6 million home with his wife's claim that people like the aged farmers with arthritic knees he meets by the Mississippi River are his folk.
And yet in judging Edwards, it's worth recalling Aristotle's conception of virtue, which lies not in our beliefs or intentions, but in the habits and practices that make up our days. Edwards has spent his recent years marching with unions and advocating for economic justice, so that those lucky union employees I met in Iowa could continue to live in placid, well-mown communities, and those unlucky ones struggling with their small jobs at awful chain stores could hope to again live in vibrant communities where young people want to stay.
Edwards may not win the nomination, and he hasn't even won the hearts of the Iowa working class -- an October Des Moines Register poll found Hillary Clinton winning union households -- but he has become, nonetheless, the nation's most important spokesman for a part of America that cannot be seen from the office towers of the coasts, or even those of downtown Des Moines. No matter what happens in Iowa in January, I hope he'll continue to speak up for that America, and help teach others to turn the camera around.