DURHAM, New Hampshire — There was no "boxers or briefs?" moment, but a relaxed John Edwards seemed to win over an attentive University of New Hampshire crowd Thursday afternoon (September 27) during the first MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue by doing something many professors might want to try: talking to the students, not at them.
Dressed casually in faded jeans, a blue oxford shirt with no tie and a sports coat (which he doffed mid-show), Edwards had ready answers to questions about everything from universal health care and global warming to the genocide in Darfur, the war in Iraq and the lack of funding for music education in schools. He offered specifics on each question without overwhelming the crowd with a blizzard of figures and vague political-speak.
Along the way, he took a few swipes at what he characterized as the Bush administration's failed policy in the so-called "global war on terror" and vowed that as president he'd immediately begin bringing troops home. He also pointedly mentioned the "similarities" between his plan for universal health care and the one recently unveiled by fellow Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton.
With questions from the audience, as well as online users who were instant-messaging tough queries in real time, Edwards made a point of personalizing his answers on topics ranging from the perceived Eurocentric bias in the school curriculum (he said he's seen it in the texts taught to his own children in public school) to how he would support all forms of stem-cell research, the latter in answer to a legally blind student who said he could benefit from more research on the matter.
"As a parent, you want your children exposed to diversity. You want them exposed to a range of diverse scholars and diverse textbooks and diverse academic work so that they have the kind of perspective on the world that is represented by that kind of diversity," Edwards said, focusing his gaze on the student intently as he argued for more voices from black, Asian, Muslim and Latin American scholars.
But then he did something a bit unexpected in answering the day's first question: He admitted that as president he wouldn't necessarily have much power to affect change on that particular issue, even if he could offer financial incentives to get the job done. It was the kind of candidness that students applauded as they hurried out after the event on their way to classes and tests — including a number who said they were Republicans coming in and were impressed with the former senator's ideas (see "John Edwards: Why He Wants To Be Your Next President").
Edwards took his position in the middle of the forum, surrounded on three sides by UNH students eager to quiz him amid a neon-glowing red, white and blue set. And though students here don't miss a chance to remind you how awesome the fall leaves are this time of year in NH, the echoey, cavernous field house the forum occupied was more like a locker room in August, barely kept cool by a fleet of overworked portable air conditioners (see "John Edwards Dialogue: The View From The Bleachers"). You'd never have known that from the cool, calm vibe that the smiling candidate gave off, though he did remove his jacket midway through in an attempt to beat the heat.
Among the proposals Edwards talked about were:
· College for everyone: in which everyone would be guaranteed a chance to attend college as long as they agree to work 10 hours a week.
· Increased arts funding: Edwards talked about the gap between scholarship and funding for athletic programs and the lack of funding for the arts by pointedly saying that when people look back on past civilizations, it is the arts that they remember — which is why it's important to fund them on every level, from kindergarten to college. His idea was to ask for specific funding from Congress to promote the arts in schools.
· How he'd meet some of his goals without raising taxes: Responding to an IM question from "LunarGoddess6B" — one that he said gets "dodged" by politicians all the time — Edwards said he would roll back the Bush administration's tax cuts on American's rich, and explained first what capital gains are, and why he would raise the taxes on that kind of revenue.
· Helping New Orleans: A student from New Orleans asked Edwards what he would have done differently in response to Hurricane Katrina. After first calling out her Reggie Bush football jersey ("is that Reggie's number?"), he replied: "Everything. ... From my perspective we don't need a surge in Baghdad, we need a surge in New Orleans." Calling President Bush's response a "complete failure," Edwards proposed rebuilding the levees more securely, adding many more police officers and letting New Orleans natives help rebuild their city by creating 50,000 "stepping-stone" jobs for area residents instead of Halliburton workers.
· Universal health care: In one of the day's biggest applause lines, Edwards pledged that he would push through a universal health-care plan within the first six months of his administration, partly by dangling the threat of loss of health care for his Cabinet and members of Congress if they didn't do it by July 2009.
Edwards appeared to enjoy the instant feedback, asking guest moderator and WashingtonPost.com political reporter Chris Cillizza to explain how the Flektor instant-polling tool worked and working hard to get his negatives up when questioned on how he would fund his various initiatives. He made sure to include personal anecdotes when possible, from how he's spoken with Bono about the importance of fighting AIDS worldwide to how he's divested his personal holdings in companies that foreclose on New Orleans homeowners. But his strongest words were saved for what he said was the false notion of a "war on terror."
"I have said I reject the Bush terminology, 'the global war on terror,' " he said. "We're not supposed to say that, for some reason, but I do. I reject it. I think there is a serious threat from terrorism, and as president I have a responsibility to keep America safe. And I will do that ... but Bush has used this term ... for everything he's done. If you speak out against the war in Iraq, that means you don't understand the war on terror. If you speak out about America holding people unconstitutionally without a hearing in Guantánamo, then that means you don't understand the war on terror. ... No, I do understand that there's a serious threat from terrorism. What I don't understand is George Bush," he said, eliciting some of the biggest applause of the day. Edwards slammed Bush for not pursuing Osama bin Laden and pointedly noted that America was not attacked by Iraq on September 11, but by bin Laden, who remains at large.
After Cillizza noted that Edwards' approval rating in the poll had jumped up almost 20 percentage points during the dialogue — to nearly 92 percent — the former senator wrapped up by explaining why he wants to be president, saving his most impassioned, personal tale for last.
"I come from a place that probably most of the young people in this audience and most of the people who are participating online come from," he said. "My family didn't have much. ... I was the first in my family to even be able to go to college. So I come from nothing and now I have everything. I freely admit it ... I did not get there by myself. My country was there for me every step of the way, from great public-school teachers to helping me pay my way through college to law school. Every step of the way America was there for me.
"In one sense, I'm running for president of the United States so that everybody has the kind of chances that I had. It's really very simple and very personal for me."
Check out the MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue with John Edwards on MTV tonight at 7 p.m. ET.