From NBC/NJ's Tricia Miller
As John Edwards was fond of saying, after we cast our votes in November, he will be fine. So will Barack and Hillary. But will America be fine?
As Edwards ended his presidential bid in New Orleans last Wednesday, it seemed the first would be true. He packed up after three days of large rallies at union halls in Feb. 5 states, his campaign still bringing in donations weeks after his hope for success dimmed. His family, apparently as healthy as ever, provided a solemn backdrop for his announcement. They would return together to their big Chapel Hill home, once the source of so much grief, now a haven from lingering questions about what went wrong. Meanwhile, Edwards' rivals began praising his campaign and rumors circulated that he would be offered a position in either of their administrations.
As a member of Edwards' traveling press corps for five months (I'm only the silver medalist -- one reporter had been traveling with him full-time for longer), I saw the two-time presidential candidate on good days and bad. In his last days, Edwards finally got the cold that had already made its way through his traveling press corps. (When I got it in South Carolina, my counterpart from Fox handed me a pack of throat lozenges she had gotten from the New York Times reporter.) The cold was a late consequence for the long days we had all experienced. Even before the first 36-hour campaign swing in Iowa, we were exhausted. No one can say that the former North Carolina senator didn't give the race his all.
In a campaign during which he often complained that the media had decided on a race between two history-making candidates -- frequently pointing to us in the back of the room as he made his point -- Edwards decided to outwork the hype. While his rivals stayed near Des Moines and Iowa City, Edwards headed north, south, east, and west, covering all 99 counties of Iowa (plus a brief stop in Omaha, Neb.) by the end of October. At the final stop in tiny Coulter, Iowa, on the morning of Oct. 28, we waited for the Ann Coulter jokes. None came, and the campaign cheerfully trudged on. One highlight for me came when Edwards started a campaign swing on a Sunday morning in my hometown. The editor of my local newspaper, which I had worked for a few years earlier, dutifully recorded the visit. The five-day-a-week paper put him on the front page above the fold on Monday and me on the front page below the fold on Tuesday. I heard about it for weeks afterwards.
Even as he put the Hawkeye State behind him and cable news analysts largely left him out of the post-Iowa analysis, Edwards drove hard through another 36-hour tour of New Hampshire toward the expected third-place finish. I was off the road then, but my producer and correspondent split duties covering it -- both unable to keep up with the Energizer candidate. From the beginning, Edwards' campaign had a four-state strategy, and we had gotten used to the back-and-forth between Iowa and New Hampshire. I racked up frequent-flier miles on a Northwest Airlines flight from Des Moines that passed through Detroit on its way to Manchester, NH. It didn't come as a shock when he lost Nevada; he had seldom traveled west of the Missouri River after I started covering him.
The culmination of a second-place finish in Iowa and third-place finishes in New Hampshire and Nevada took the air out of the campaign. Edwards flew to his home state of South Carolina and campaigned there with the same vigor, but at fewer events and without taking audience questions. Used to schedules that regularly included five events a day at far-flung Iowa towns, we slowly adjusted to days that included no more than three events. That would have been a brutal switch for our colleagues covering Fred Thompson, but for us it was a welcome respite. While Edwards strategized with his South Carolina staff and submitted to local interviews, we finally got a chance to see Charleston and to sit down for seafood dinners along the coast.
By this point, the traveling press corps was dwindling. A few of us had become fixtures on the campaign trail, traveling with press staffers in mini-vans full-time since September. When we arrived at events, we greeted staffers by name and were no longer asked to sign in. As more joined by December, we packed into a full-size van. After Christmas it was two full-size vans, where cozy conditions led to friction between overworked and cranky reporters. Finally, the group swelled enough to justify a bus for Edwards' 36-hour tour. The largest group of scribes and photogs traveling with the campaign came about halfway through that tour, when some people didn't have the desired two seats to themselves.
It was all downhill from there. The South Carolina staff generously let the 10 or so remaining reporters and photogs continue to be charged to ride in a bus, leading to much less tension and -- at least in my case -- the motivation to file posts or video after almost every event. (That had been close to impossible in Iowa and New Hampshire, and not rewarding either.) By the time the campaign drew to a close in New Orleans, only five people were along for the ride: reporters from ABC and CBS, a producer and cameraman from CNN, and me.
The end came as a surprise. We had been riding on Edwards' chartered plane since his loss in South Carolina, making stops in Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Minnesota -- all Feb. 5 states where the Edwards campaign thought they could pick up delegates. The campaign held a conference call touting record fundraising online and released ads in key primary states. I had been routinely batting away calls from bosses in New York and Washington asking when the campaign would end. No one was interested in much else from me as Edwards' impact on the race steadily diminished. When an event in Fargo was canceled and we were rerouted to New Orleans (in Louisiana, a state with a Feb. 9 primary), Edwards' traveling spokesman told us it was for a speech on poverty because the president had not addressed it in his State of the Union.
By the time we slogged through the mud at Musicians Village, meeting crews and correspondents who had flown in frantically once the news broke that morning, it was over. Edwards staffers had quit answering their phones, instead opting to e-mail glowing articles about the senator leading the policy debate in the Democratic nomination. In stark contrast to Rudy Giuliani's final concession later in the day, we were driven as usual to the site. Staffers flew in with Edwards' family from Chapel Hill to see the end, as they had the beginning. Reporters who needed it were driven to the airport afterward.
So as Edwards lent his celebrity to Habitat for Humanity once again and analysts began bickering over which candidate he would eventually endorse -- or whether he would endorse at all -- those who had left their lives behind to cover this man made a big decision: whether to catch a flight home or to stay for that night's Mardi Gras celebration. It was quickly evident, in fact, that America would be fine.