Johnny Come Lately

Last Monday, people began lining up outside of the All Saints Church in Pasadena, California at 1:30 PM to see John Edwards -- who wasn't scheduled to appear until the evening. When the church couldn't fit all 700 audience members into the same room as Edwards, guests willingly watched telecasts that were set up in two other rooms. "It had the feeling of a campaign event," Parish Administrator Christina Honchell told me. "There was a feeling of celebration in the air because of the change in Congress."

That evening, Edwards appeared at ease wearing jeans and an open-collared shirt. After speaking briefly about his new book, Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives, Edwards opened the floor for questions, which ranged from the economy to health care to, inevitably, the war in Iraq. The crowd reached a fever pitch when Susan Russell, an All Saints priest, asked what hope there could be for parents who preach peace in wartime but whose children are fighting in Iraq. (Russell's own son is currently serving in Tikrit.) Edwards' response was notable. As he has for a while now, he blamed himself explicitly for having voted to authorize the war, and emphasized his proposal to decrease the number of troops significantly and immediately through redeployment, to be followed eventually by a complete withdrawal from the country.

Indeed, the former senator's populist domestic rhetoric about "two Americas" has long garnered the most attention, but it has served to obscure an interesting turnabout and a remarkable fact: John Edwards could become the Democrats' leading anti-war candidate for 2008.

This is assuming he decides to run. Both Edwards and his One America PAC have been coy about announcing his candidacy. But in the meantime, Edwards has been busy traveling the country and serving as a passionate and vocal critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq -- and of his own initial support for it.

Edwards cut a hawkish figure during his sole Senate term, particularly in the wake of September 11th. He supported the PATRIOT Act and co-sponsored Joe Lieberman's Iraq war resolution, eventually voting for it in the full Senate. In the fall of 2002, Edwards spoke from the Senate floor numerous times to justify his sponsorship of the resolution, claiming that military action was vital to protect American national security. "Each day [Saddam Hussein] inches closer to his longtime goal of nuclear capability -- a capability that could be less than a year away," Edwards said then. "I believe that Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime represents a clear threat to the United States, to our allies, to our interests around the world, and to the values of freedom and democracy we hold dear."

While Edwards shifted his stance on the war to a certain degree prior to the 2004 election, he publicly took full responsibility for his voting record in an op-ed published in The Washington Post last fall. "I was wrong," Edwards began, later stating, "It has been hard to say these words because those who didn't make a mistake -- the men and women of our armed forces and their families -- have performed heroically and paid a dear price." No other would-be presidential candidate has been as forthright and explicit in admitting such wrongdoing, and thus none of the other potential nominees publicly has the particular track record that Edwards has on the war.

Every Democratic nominee in the 2008 primary will undoubtedly champion an anti-war platform of some kind. Edwards' plan calls for the removal of 40,000 troops immediately, followed by gradual and complete troop withdrawal combined with international diplomacy and more effective training for Iraqi forces. Now that vocal war critic Russ Feingold has backed out of the primary, Edwards would balance out the more centrist views of Hillary Clinton, who has refused to back a timetable for withdrawal. The question remains whether Edwards would be able to distinguish himself as the anti-Hillary, anti-war option over other candidates -- and particularly Barack Obama.

Chuck Todd of National Journal expresses skepticism about Edwards emerging as the Democrats' clear choice based on the war alone. "I don't think anyone has been more hurt by Obama's possible candidacy than Edwards," he said. While Todd admitted to being a fan of Edwards for his work with organized labor and populist economic message, he claimed, "Edwards was the Obama of '04, the reincarnation of Bill Clinton. Now, that reincarnation is Obama." Whether Obama's comparative lack of congressional experience or Edwards' unique perspective and candor regarding the war might make a difference remains to be seen.

Also remaining to be seen, of course, is whether Obama or Edwards actually decides to run in the end. For his part, Edwards has already attained the ubiquity, and travel schedule, of someone seeking the presidency. Earlier this year, he traveled to Uganda to call attention to the humanitarian crisis there. Edwards then returned to the United States and began campaigning tirelessly for Democratic congressional nominees nationwide. In the past month, Edwards has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and CBS Sunday Morning, and has been touring the country again, this time to tout his new book. The book tour has become a convenient means for Edwards to stir up support and gauge the public should he decide to run.

It was through that book tour that Edwards came to All Saints last week. "There is a real hunger for someone who's willing to say, 'I made a mistake,'" church administrator Christina Honchell said about Edwards' statements on Iraq. Indeed, All Saints was an ideal place for Edwards to reiterate his anti-war mea culpa. The Episcopal church has faced an IRS probe for a sermon criticizing the war just two days before the 2004 election. The church's rector at the time, Rev. George Regas, envisioned a debate between Bush, Kerry, and Jesus Christ -- Bush didn't win. Honchell explained that the church doesn't have control over its pulpit, but that the investigation has generated a lot of publicity, as well as many "solidarity members" from other faiths who share similar views on the war. Kim Rubey, an Edwards spokesperson, claims that Edwards and One America only learned about the IRS probe shortly before his scheduled appearance at All Saints, but it made no difference to the crowd. They responded to Edwards' candor by erupting in applause.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a graduate student at The New School and a regular contributor to AlterNet.

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.