May 21, 2006 — -- Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., says George W. Bush is the "worst president of our lifetime," and "absolutely" worse than Watergate-tainted President Nixon.
In an exclusive appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," the former presidential and vice presidential contender said of Bush, "He's done a variety of things -- things which are going to take us forever to recover from.
"You have to give Bush and Cheney and gang credit for being good at politics -- you know, good at political campaigns," Edwards added. "They're very good at dividing the country and taking advantage of it. What they're not good at is governing, and it shows every single day in this administration. And the country is paying a huge price for that."
The former senator, pitching his "college for everyone" program in rural North Carolina, also responded to recent criticism by Mary Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter. In "Now It's My Turn: A Daughter's Chronicle of Political Life," Cheney, the 37-year-old second daughter of the vice president and second lady, labeled Edwards as "complete and total slime" for congratulating Cheney and his wife during their 2004 vice presidential debate for "embrac[ing]" their daughter's sexual orientation.
Edwards did not back down, telling Stephanopoulous, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent, "I think what I said then was appropriate. And I do believe that it was in a very partisan political environment. We were in the middle of a very hot campaign, very close campaign."
Mary Cheney, a close political adviser to her father, told ABC News "Primetime" anchor Diane Sawyer in May that she seriously contemplated quitting the 2004 campaign over Bush's opposition to gay marriage.
"I struggled with my decision to stay," she said.
Edwards told "This Week": "What happened … is that the vice president had mentioned in several public appearances the fact that he had a gay daughter, had talked about some differences in policy that he had with the president. He was asked a question in the debate where that was referenced by the moderator, Gwen Ifill. He responded. I said that actually the fact that they had a gay daughter and embraced her is something that should be applauded for. He said thank you."
Mary Cheney has claimed in her book that her father was acting.
"He didn't seem like he was acting," Edwards told Stephanopoulos, "although you never know with the vice president."
Mary Cheney has since returned to private life, working at AOL and living with her longtime partner, Heather Poe, in Virginia.
With regard to her father, Edwards continued to level sharp criticism.
"It is not an accident that he's unbelievably poorly thought of," Edwards said. "He is one of -- if not the -- principal architects of this disaster in Iraq. He put us on an energy path that the American people are paying an enormous price for right now. He paid little to no attention to making sure the government was prepared to respond to the kind of disaster that hit our Gulf Coast. We've got a health care crisis going on, he's had no proposal of any kind that I know of. And people don't trust him anymore, which is understandable. I wouldn't trust him."
Edwards made the pitch for a Democratic president in 2008, claiming Bush has "intentionally ignored" the law and constitution in the NSA wiretapping controversy.
"If I were in the Senate, I would vote for censure," over that controversy, Edwards said. "Again, I don't think this is where I'd spend my energy, but if I had an up-or-down vote, I'd vote for it."
But for the most part, the one-term senator, who retired from the Senate to run for president, seemed relieved to be without a vote in Congress.
"I just think that if you don't live in Washington -- which I don't anymore, thank goodness; I live here in North Carolina -- … for me, it gives me a completely different perspective."
Edwards endorsed the Kennedy-McCain approach to immigration -- "earned citizenship" and increased border protection. He suggested raising the minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit, and strengthening organized labor as the keys to a better economy. His main focus these days, however, is education.
In Snow Hill, N.C., to deliver $300,000 in college scholarships to seniors at Greene Central High School, Edwards told Stephanopoulos, "Any kid here who graduates from high school qualified to go to college, willing to work at least 10 hours a week the first year they're in school, we pay for their tuition and books."
Edwards would like to take this plan, which debuted as a campaign proposal during his failed 2004 presidential bid, and his anti-poverty campaign nationwide.
"I think you have to convince the country that it's [the] moral and just thing to do," he said. But he acknowledged, "I don't think [Americans are] completely there. I think that in their conscience inside they're there, but they haven't had any leadership. No one has ever made them think about it."
As to whether he might be the one to press such an agenda in the 2008 presidential campaign, Edwards said, "I'm thinking about it, and I'm very seriously considering it. I just haven't made a final decision.
"[I] don't have a time frame," he added, "but can't wait too long."
Edwards said he might not run if his wife's health problems flared up. Elizabeth Edwards, the former senator's wife of 29 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer on Nov. 3, 2004, the day that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Edwards conceded defeat to the Bush-Cheney team.
"She's doing great," Edwards said. "All the tests are good, and they're very encouraging. But we have young children, Emma Claire and Jack, and the health of Elizabeth and how my family's doing would have to be at the front of anything."
Edwards said his losses as a presidential and vice presidential candidate in 2004 -- his only losses in a short, but meteoric political career -- may have affected his outlook.
"In honesty," Edwards said, "going through a campaign has a natural maturation process. I mean, it changes you. It changes the way you see things. It changes how you feel about your own views and your willingness to stand with them, no matter what kind of opposition or unpopularity they have. I think it just gives you a different perspective."
If he does run, Edwards said the possibility of opposition from Kerry or Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in a 2008 Democratic primary would not faze him.
Calling Clinton a "formidable candidate", Edwards said, "I just think that anybody who suggests, particularly now … that you can predict what's going to happen is just living in never, never land."
George Stephanopoulos' entire interview with former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards can be viewed at "This Week's" Web page at www.abcnews.com.