Harm's Way 

Why John Edwards will have to do better in the 14 weeks ahead.

Last Wednesday night in Boston was John Edwards' big night. But it was not his best one.

After the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee's acceptance speech, I ran into one of his aides, who reminded me that the first rule of speechwriting is "First, do no harm." And by that standard, the text Edwards worked with was a rousing success -- moving, direct, colloquial, and right on track with the evening's theme of security. But harm, it should be recalled, can come in many forms.

Edwards' words may have been burnished to an unassailable brightness, but nothing could disguise the fact that he looked tired. His voice had been threatening to give out earlier in the week, and aides worried that he wouldn't even last on Wednesday as long as he did. On the podium, he licked his lips between phrases while his eyes flashed a calculated look. Sometimes, he made a kind of sour-lemon face, like something was paining him. Conscious of the need to finish during the prime-time television hour, he didn't pause for applause to die away naturally and spoke rapidly over the crowd, making him hard to hear at moments and also making him seem a bit disconnected from the audience.

I was unpleasantly reminded of all the times Edwards has not measured up to his star billing: His unimpressive Meet the Press performance of 2002. His months of flat polling and fine but bland speeches before his last-minute meteoric ascent in the primaries. The way it took him months and months to figure out how to grasp and hold the attention of voters. The fact that despite all the hype about his oratorical skills and the "two Americas" speech -- which I praised in January, like many others -- he was still beaten in every state but South Carolina and Oklahoma by the man whom commentators continue to suggest he overshadows.

Many of the phrases in the presentation were culled from stump speeches past; others are likely to be part of stump speeches future; and some of the material was likely specific to the convention venue. Give Edwards another two weeks with this new speech and new material, said one of his aides, and you'll see that primary-season star again. That sounds about right.

In the end, though, what Edwards laid out in his speech will matter much more in the weeks ahead than will his performance Wednesday night. Edwards' words were striking. The most memorable line of the evening, Edwards' direct challenge to al-Qaeda -- "You cannot run. You cannot hide. We will destroy you." -- struck me with particular force.

Edwards barely mentioned Iraq during his primary speeches, and he rarely mentioned terrorism. But with that formulation, he stepped across a line between the politician he had been and the one he may yet become. Which is to say, a leader in a time of war. For if Edwards is to be America's vice president during this time of threat and uncertainty, that is what he will have to be. He will have to be comfortable with the use of force. The power of American might will be deployed partly under his influence, and it will be among his responsibilities to protect the nation from harm. Men and women will die under his watch. Our nation will possibly face, foil, and weather attack.

"We are approaching the third anniversary of September 11th," said Edwards on Wednesday night, "and one thing I can tell you: When we're in office, it won't take three years to get the reforms in our intelligence that are necessary to keep the American people safe."

The words are all there. Now all Edwards has to do is figure out how to say them.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a senior editor of The American Prospect, where a longer version of this essay first appeared.

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