Men’s Vogue: Politics
John Edwards’s campaign adviser talks with Joe Hagan about rural Americans getting screwed by the GOP, why his candidate will win back the “Bubba” vote for the Dems, and how his good buddy Cooter from The Dukes of Hazzard sometimes calls on him for a little help.
Known by his backwoods nickname, “Mudcat,” he’s a self-described “rural liaison” who is helping Edwards craft a populist message of economic equality for “Bubba,” that catchall for the traditional white, male voter living in rural America.
In real time, that means Saunders, a native of Roanoke County, Virginia, can put John Edwards on a stage next to bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley while reminding voters that Democrats like guns, too.
With consultant Steve Jarding, Saunders co-authored the 2006 book Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’em Out. Having helped Mark Warner get elected as Governor of Virginia in 2001 (in part by concocting a bluegrass jingle for his campaign), he used some of the same populist themes to aid Jim Webb’s successful 2006 bid for senator.
Saunders insists that John Edwards is the one presidential hopeful who can get through to “the culture” because he’s from rural North Carolina. Edwards loves his own “people,” Saunders says. But is that enough to win over culturally conservative white men who’ve been voting Republican for 30 years?
MEN’S VOGUE: You call yourself a “rural liaison.” How does one get into such a business?
DAVID SAUNDERS: I was drunk. [Laughs] And on January 3, 1983, I stopped drinking. I had a buddy who was a very powerful Virginia legislator named Dick Cranwell who’d stuck by me and worked with me and all. And I’d helped him some in politics. And then he became House majority leader and we started winning elections. You know, we’d get 60 percent of the vote in a 65 percent Republican district. We just did rural things, talked about kitchen table issues and understood the psyche of the people around us, and we won some more elections. Dicky called me one day in late 2000 and wanted me to meet him for a sausage biscuit, and he told me that with redistricting coming, he had been redistricted into a seat with two other legislators and was stepping down. And he had talked to Mark Warner and Mark Warner was really interested in doing a rural campaign. So that’s how I got here.
MEN’S VOGUE: You picked John Edwards early while Mark Warner was still in the race. Why did you go with Edwards at that point?
SAUNDERS: It’s very simple. I am much, much more a rural advocate than I am a Democrat. And I’m plum fed up with the way rural America—56 million of us—have been screwed. What deregulation and these trade treaties, what corporate pirates have done to us is unconscionable. And Johnny Edwards is right where I am. He’s plum fed up. You can go through the South now—you know where we were raised—and they all look the same now, like Sherman went through there and didn’t burn anything. But nobody really wants to talk about economic fairness. [Listen to an MP3.]
MEN’S VOGUE: What convinced you that Edwards meant it?
SAUNDERS: I know the guy. God, I’ve known him since December of 2001. Johnny’s one of the most misportrayed people in the history of American politics.
MEN’S VOGUE: Why?
SAUNDERS: In 1980, one percent of the people made eight percent of the money, now one percent of the people makes more than 20 percent of the money. Disparity is at an all-time high. And it pisses me off that anytime anybody asks a question about John Edwards and his strong beliefs on economic fairness, everybody talks about how he isn’t qualified to talk about it because he has a highfalutin haircut and lives in a high-powered house. What they’re saying is only the uneducated can talk about education, only the sick can talk about health care. That’s how ludicrous that whole mindset is.
MEN’S VOGUE: There’s a debate about whether Democrats can make any headway in the South, where one of the challenges is getting white, working class people to vote on economic issues. But often they’re voting on so-called moral issues.
MEN’S VOGUE: You know, we finally broke through on God.
MEN’S VOGUE: How is that?
SAUNDERS: Because Democrats are starting to stand up and say, “Wait a damn minute, the GOP doesn’t stand for God’s Only Party.” God is neither Democrat nor Republican. He could care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. He’s about the individual heart, not your party.
MEN’S VOGUE: But why do you think that Democrats now have some sort of credibility on that issue where before they didn’t?
SAUNDERS: Maybe the Republicans haven’t lived up to the buck. You know you can’t take a confusing single issue like abortion, and continue to use that as evidence that you’re continuing to do God’s work when you destroy God’s will in every other facet of what you do.
MEN’S VOGUE: Are you talking about the war? The environment?
SAUNDERS: No Child Left Behind—not funding it. You know, here are the Republicans, they could put a smart bomb down an elevator shaft in Baghdad from a ship out in the Mediterranean but they can’t put a pill in the pocket of a damn World War II veteran? Give me a break. Gays—hell, they’ve had so many state amendments banning [gay marriage]. I think people are sick of talking about gays. And see the racial wedges are definitely crumbling.
MEN’S VOGUE: How?
SAUNDERS: Well, we’re not at the top of the mountain that Dr. King talked about, but we’re getting there. You go throughout the South now and literally every white person has a close black friend and every black person has a close white friend. We’re moving up the mountain.
MEN’S VOGUE: A lot of people say that that’s the wedge in the South.
SAUNDERS: Let me tell you, there’s a hell of a lot more racism in Boston, Massachusetts, than there is here in the Appalachian mountains, I can promise you.
MEN’S VOGUE: In the last election, the Republicans played to some of these moral issues and won the South. Why won’t that happen again?
SAUNDERS: Well, they played to these moral issues in Virginia and had a gay marriage amendment on the ballot and we still beat George Allen. That doesn’t play anymore. It’s over. The reason I work with Edwards is ’cause he can get through the culture. He understands it, he can talk it.
MEN’S VOGUE: What does that mean? What is the culture?
SAUNDERS: Let me give you an example. If you say the word poverty, what kind of people come to your mind?
MEN’S VOGUE: The inner cities, maybe.
SAUNDERS: I’d say! That’s the first thing. Now when Bubba hears about poverty—now he’s lost his job, his kid wants to go to college but he can’t pay his tuition, so he’s getting ready to send him off to the army so he can get some money off the G.I. Bill, he don’t have any health insurance, he’s got a little garden out there in his yard, and he just picks up odd jobs, throws some hay bails or something, and is just sitting there completely devastated. But if you tell him he’s living in poverty, he’ll fight you over it. And the reason is because of pride. He’s broke but he isn’t poor. You say, “Are you living in poverty?” He’ll say, “Hell no, I’m not in poverty.” But if you ask him if he’s being treated unfairly, he’ll say, “F—, yes.” [Listen to an MP3.]
MEN’S VOGUE: Some people give Edwards grief because he’s rich and he wants to talk about the poor.
SAUNDERS: Oh, I’ve gotten that for sure. It’s like Harry Truman said, “The president of the United States is the lobbyist for the regular people.” It drives me berserk when someone says that Johnny’s a wuss or something. Let me tell you something, John Edwards is one tough son of a bitch.
MEN’S VOGUE: Did you have a fight with him or something?
SAUNDERS: No, I just know him. Look at his track record. He’s born poor as a church mouse. And his dad works up a little bit so by the time he gets out of school, he’s pretty much middle class even though he didn’t have much. So he decides he’s going to earn a football scholarship at Clemson University, so he goes down there and he’s one of these Rudy guys and he gets the absolute dog crap beat out of him. The guy is quicker than a hiccup, he really is, but he weighed a hundred and nothing and they beat the hell out of him. And he did that for a year, and at the end of the year they said no scholarship is coming, so he transferred to NC State. Then he starts his career as a trial lawyer and he immediately takes on the biggest, toughest, baddest legal firms in America and whips their asses taking up for little people. You don’t do that unless you’re tough. And I will say this: I’d hate to fight him cause you’d have to kill him, because he would fight you to the last second. I want that toughness in my president, because we can’t win on a freakin’ haircut. [Listen to an MP3.]
MEN’S VOGUE: Merle Black, an expert on southern politics and culture at Emory University, calls Edwards a “hedge fund populist.” He thinks that people just don’t trust that Edwards has their interests at heart because they think he’s someone who is more interested in power and money.
SAUNDERS: Well, I personally believe that if a man goes out and he works hard and he does well, he can do whatever the hell he wants with his own money. When somebody would be disqualified from making statements because he lived the American dream—the irony of that is unbelievable.
MEN’S VOGUE: And so what people see in the media when they see the haircut and the house and everything—that isn’t the guy you know?
SAUNDERS: I don’t care about that haircut. Is he too good-looking to be president?
MEN’S VOGUE: That’s a good question. Maybe he is!
SAUNDERS: Do people not like him because he’s good-looking and he’s rich? That’s just too much for one guy? God almighty. John Edwards is the only candidate who can go up against Republicans in 2008 and blend culture and message.
MEN’S VOGUE: And culture here is code for the South, growing up rural?
SAUNDERS: There ain’t 50 cents difference between a Bubba in Nassau County, New York and Giles County, Virginia. Bubba is Bubba.
MEN’S VOGUE: What is that cultural connection?
SAUNDERS: Our affection for outdoor sports, hunting and fishing, our affection for Nascar, our affection for the Almighty. And the one thing we don’t like is federal intrusion into our lives. And Republicans have been doing nothing but intruding and meddling into our day-to-day lives.
MEN’S VOGUE: What do you think the impact of that could be in the South in the general election? Do you think you could actually turn some states blue?
SAUNDERS: I think we’ll win four states, if Edwards is the nominee. A minimum of four, possibly five southern states. I don’t think there’s any question we’ll win Virginia and North Carolina in the general. And Florida. Every poll that comes out says our electability is the strongest. And that says, right there, that we’ve gotten through to the culture somewhat.
MEN’S VOGUE: So this is the year? Right now is a turning point?
SAUNDERS: Right now is it, brother. The worm has turned and is heading in the other direction. People don’t believe Republicans anymore. And they shouldn’t.
MEN’S VOGUE: What are you doing when you’re out there with Edwards among rural people? Do see how the crowd is reacting; do you talk to people?
SAUNDERS: I know what the people are thinking before the band starts and John Edwards gets on the stage. And that is, they’re getting screwed. They call it political science, but I always thought they should call it political art. The art is to get the message that connects to the people. We’ve got the message and we’ve got the messenger to deliver it. [Listen to an MP3.]
MEN’S VOGUE: Have you read Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South?
SAUNDERS: No. But I had one discussion with the author, Tom Schaller up there at the DailyKos [conference in summer 2006]. He said something like 74 percent of us in the South are self-described racists and all this crazy stuff. And all I said was, “I just have one thing to say to you pal: You can kiss my rebel ass.”
MEN’S VOGUE: But the South is a tough road for the Democrats. Don’t you agree?
MEN’S VOGUE: Why not?
SAUNDERS: I just told you we’re going to win four southern states if we get the nomination.
MEN’S VOGUE: Yes, but up until now it’s been hard to get the vote.
SAUNDERS: Because we were immersed in cultural disputes. The Democrats, I believe, have finally learned. The majority leader, for instance, of the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid, has an A+ rating with the NRA.
Listen, in politics home court is more important than in any other sport. And if you can get somebody on your home court where you can talk about what you want to talk about, you can whip ’em. And [the GOP] has thrown out God, guns, gays, all this other stuff at us, and the Democrats for the last 40 years have gobbled up the bait. And it’s over—we’re not going to gobble up that bait anymore. Right now Republican morale is at the lowest I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime. And it should be. [Listen to an MP3.]
MEN’S VOGUE: Are we going to see more of Edwards hunting and fishing and going to Nascar?
SAUNDERS: No. He’ll go to some races and meet with the Nascar people. He likes to fish—on farm ponds, of all things. You know, sit around the pond and think and throw plastic worms for bass. But he’s not a hunter.
MEN’S VOGUE: You’ve got a lot of friends in country music and Nascar. How did that happen?
SAUNDERS: Well, the Wood brothers, they were the winningest team in Nascar, and I was out riding one day years ago and went past their shop and thought, “I’m going to stop there and take a look,” and they put me to work.
MEN’S VOGUE: Doing what?
SAUNDERS: Just selling sponsorships, helping them out. That’s one of the things I will be doing when I retire after politics, after this campaign—this is the last campaign—one of the things I’ll do is get back and help Eddie and Len Wood with the race team.
And the musicians, I’ve always been a big bluegrass fan. A guy named Tim Alston had a studio, Debussy Records, right here across the mountain from me, and they used to bring their buses in and record. They’d always fix a big supper over there and Tim’s wife would call me on the phone and tell me to come over and eat, and I’d get to eat with all these bluegrass stars and stuff, so I just became buddies with them. And then through my rural advocacy, traveling around, I got to be good friends with Ben Jones—you know, Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard? In fact, that’s what I’m doing this weekend. I’ve got to go down to the Dukes Fest in Nashville and help Cooter. I take care of backstage for him, and when kids get lost I get up on the stage and announce, “We’ve got a kid here. Quit drinking beer and come get your kid!” [Listen to an MP3.]