In one of his first public speeches since admitting to an affair with a campaign worker, former U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Edwards spoke to an enthusiastic, overflow crowd of about 600 students at Brown University.
The 30-minute lecture titled "Beautiful America" touched on Edwards' run for president and on what he termed "America's challenges." Edwards did not mention his relationship with former campaign worker Rielle Hunter or her child, which Edwards has denied fathering.
But during the question and answer session following the speech, Edwards addressed his affair indirectly. A student, who said she had campaigned for Edwards, asked him if he thought it fair that the American public continues to judge political candidates according to "a higher moral standard."
Edwards replied, "I don't think it is for a candidate to decide what's appropriate or not appropriate. That's something for every single American to decide. We live in a free country where people have the right to form their views without limitation." Edwards added that he had his own views that he intended to keep private for now.
For that answer, Edwards received a loud round of applause.
After Edwards admitted to the affair last summer, he canceled a number of public appearances, including speeches he was scheduled to make at Salem State College in Salem, Mass., and at the University of Illinois, and he has rarely appeared in public forums. But about a month ago, the student-run Brown Lecture Board reached out to the former presidential candidate, and he accepted.
"We look for people who are interesting, who reach out to the community," said Kat Yang, a Brown student and lecture board member.
During the speech, Edwards shared some anecdotes from the campaign trail, such as playing basketball with Barack Obama, and talked about a recent humantiarian mission he made to Haiti. "One morning we wrapped up the bodies of children who had died over the last few nights. They don't bury them. They have no place to bury them. They don't have the resources," Edwards said, adding, "it is not OK for the United States to stand quietly by and let this continue."
Edwards also touched on a number of his old campaign themes: universal health care , energy independence and poverty in America. "We still have 37 million people who wake up every day, and are still worried about feeding and clothing their children. I have been in hundreds of places in this country ... stories would rip your heart out, they really would," said Edwards.
For 30 minutes, Edwards took questions from the friendly audience in the auditorium at Brown. Carolyn James, a Brown alum, clutched a photo of herself with the former North Carolina senator as she listened to him speak. James came to tonight's lecture because "I have always felt John Edwards had a lot to contribute. He helped to form the Democratic platform." James said she is thrilled that Edwards seems to be taking some steps to ease back into the public eye. "If I were him, I would look for a friendly, sympathetic audience, so this is a great venue for him to come back," said James.
If this speech is part of an Edwards comeback, it was a tightly controlled one. No videotaping of the lecture was allowed. Edwards did agree to be filmed entering and leaving the auditorium, but when he arrived, he was surrounded by a number of security personnel. The former senator left the room immediately after answering the last question.
Still, many of the students were glad to see the former senator on any stage, even if not a national one.
Stella Aslibekyan, a community health major, said, "I admire John Edwards despite what happened. I still think he has plenty of character, and his issues really speak to me, like eliminating poverty." Aslibekyan hopes Edwards reinvents himself as "kind of an Al Gore."
But not everyone was enamored by Edwards appearance. After the speech was over, a group of six students stood talking furiously outside the room. The group included history major Tara Prendergast; Frieda Kay, a chemical engineering student; Stephanie Yin and Julie Pittman. None of these women cared one bit about Edwards' personal life, but they were nonetheless deeply disappointed in the former senator.
Prendergast said she had "high expectations" for the speech, but that it was "full of generalities" and "not very realistic." Kay called it a "wasted opportunity." The group said it expected to hear specific solutions to real world problems and had hoped to be challenged. All they got, said Prendergast, was "an empty speech."