Edwards: ‘Where is America?’

By
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Global poverty “is not an economic issue,” former Senator John Edwards told a full Salomon 101 last night. “It’s a moral issue.”

Speaking of the need to confront poverty in the developing world and to protect the environment, Edwards called on the United States to “lead aggressively, not cautiously.”

“Who will speak for them? Who will be their voice?” Edwards said of the poor. “They need us. They need you – they need me.”

Edwards, who cancelled a fall speaking engagement here after admitting to his involvement in an extramarital affair, titled last night’s lecture “Beautiful America.”

The Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2004, Edwards is known for invoking “the two Americas,” a phrase he used to describe the divide between rich and poor during his bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and 2008.

But last night his focus was global poverty, he said, calling domestic and foreign problems “completely intertwined.”

“Over the long term, what happens in the rest of the world has such an enormous impact on what’s happening to us that you can’t really separate the two,” Edwards said.

Edwards told the story of a woman who could not afford to heat the home she shared with her four children. He said the woman told her children each day, “Please don’t tell anybody at school about what’s happening here because they will take you away from me.”

Still, Edwards said, this deprivation pales in comparison to the absolute poverty found in much of the rest of the world. Edwards, spoke of a visit he made to Delhi. He described finding children on a cracked concrete floor covered in blankets, the air reeking of open sewage. Edwards discovered he had found a school.

The children were “bright-eyed” and “talkative,” Edwards said. But “I walked out of that place asking, ‘Where is America? Where are we?'”

Global poverty is also a matter of national interest for the U.S., Edwards said. “What we do cooperatively with the rest of the world – that will decide what happens to us, what happens to the planet.”

Edwards said the U.S. should review trade policy, foreign aid and problematic agriculture subsidies in order to address global inequality. He also suggested that European countries might invest in biofuel agriculture in Africa as a means of confronting energy dependence and poverty.

After speaking for about 30 minutes, Edwards opened the floor to questions.

He said his future plans include “whatever I can do to have the most impact on helping the poor,” whether inside of government or out.

When asked about companies’ resistance to environmentally sustainable practices during an economic downturn, Edwards called such thinking “fundamentally stupid,” drawing applause from the crowd.

“I think it shows no vision for any company to say, ‘We need to keep doing what we’re doing because these are bad economic times,'” Edwards said. The former senator cited the recent troubles of American automakers as a case where disregard for environmental concerns has had negative economic consequences.

In response to a question on his future role in healthcare reform, Edwards said, “It’s a huge issue for me because it so affects the poor.” But “it’s not my central issue.”

“Honestly I think my wife is a better voice on this than I am,” said Edwards, whose wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Because of her own personal health issues she has a personal effect on people.”

A Brown student and past Edwards volunteer asked the former senator whether he felt the public should hold politicians to a higher moral standard, a seeming allusion to Edward’s admitted extramarital affair in 2006.

“I don’t think it’s for a candidate to decide what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate” in evaluating politicians, Edwards said. “I would never suggest that I have some corner on what people ought to be able to consider,” he said. “I have my own view, which I’m going to keep to myself tonight.”