MANCHESTER, NH — For weeks, John Edwards has been invoking the personal stories of three people. Nataline Sarkisyan was a 17-year-old girl whose family fought with their insurance company to get Nataline covered for a critically needed liver transplant, only to have it agree too late to save her life. James Lowe is a man who couldn't speak for the first 50 years of his life because he didn't have the health coverage he needed to fix his cleft palate. And Valerie Lakey is a young girl who was injured on a swimming pool drain that the manufacturer knew was dangerous. Edwards fought the company in court on behalf of the Lakey family, and won.
Today, the families involved in those stories campaigned with Edwards and his wife Elizabeth in New Hampshire. Though they undoubtedly appeared with the best of intentions, they became pawns in a political game of back-and-forth before the day was out.
The emotion in Manchester's Franco-American Centre in the early afternoon was tremendous. The Edwardses tried to describe the effort the Sarkisyans had gone through to save Nataline's life before ceding the microphone to, in order, her mother, her older brother, and her father. Nataline was diagnosed with cancer when she was 14 years old, said Nataline's mother Hilda. Insurance companies sent them to multiple hospitals and were hesitant to cooperate, but eventually her cancer went into remission. After a joyous sweet sixteen party, doctors told the family there was a complication: Nataline needed bone marrow. Her brother could donate, and did. A week after the operation, it looked like everything would be fine. Once again, a complication. Nataline had turned yellow; she had jaundice.
Nataline spent three weeks in ICU, but the insurance company, Cigna, twice declined to pay for a liver transplant. Multiple doctors told Cigna (motto: "A Business of Caring") she needed the operation. Her nurses helped picket Cigna's offices, along with members of the Sarkisyans' church and members of their Armenian community. Nataline's father said he spent Nataline's last day on earth in front of Cigna's offices, pleading.
"She loved Christmas," said Hilda. "I promised her she'd be home for Christmas." Nataline didn't make it. On December 20th of this past year, Cigna agreed to "make an exception" for Nataline, but she died later that day. Her voice breaking, standing next to her family and the Edwardses, Hilda told the crowd, "I feel empty inside. My heart is a hole."
She pointed out that Nataline shouldn't have been "an exception." "We fought them, but what about the other parents that cannot speak, they don't have the community, they don't have the churches to back them up?"
And this was the point the campaign repeatedly tried to make: Nataline's story is only one of many examples. "It could be easy to think this is Nataline's story. But what they believe, what we believe, is that it is all of our story," said Elizabeth Edwards. "It is a story of what could happen to any one of us, unless we have the willingness to change."
Said John Edwards, gesturing at the Sarkisyans, "You see in real ways what is sometimes abstract."
James Lowe also tried to speak, but the combination of his tears, his modesty, and the speech impediment a lifetime of being medically unable to speak had left him with kept him for speaking long.
Sandy Lakey, the mother of the girl who was caught on the swimming pool drain, spoke last, saying that when she met Edwards, it was the first time after her daughter's accident that she felt hope. "He is our champion," she said. "He is our hero. He will stand up for you the way he stood up for us."
Across the room, people wiped their eyes as the families told their stories. They reached out and held hands. They repeatedly stood and applauded, almost surging towards the stage in collective sympathy. It felt like a huge group hug.
And yet, the day descended into petty politics by four pm.
Obviously, politics were present from the beginning. Edwards began the day by trying to marginalize Hillary Clinton. "Iowa caucusgoersvoters across Americahave already made the decision on the status quo versus change. There is no decision to be made there," he said. "The status quo is history in America." He repeatedly called for a debate between the "two agents of change," he and Senator Obama.
And he tried to make the case that middle America's problems were "personal" to him but only "political, philosophical, or academic" to Obama. Obama had the right "ideas and philosophies," but not the "fight."
But it was between the first and second events that Edwards and his advisors decided to respond to a statement made by a Clinton campaign spokesman that seemed to dismiss the people Edwards had been using in his speeches. "In order to be president, you need to do more than read articles about people who need help and talk about them," said the spokesman. We need as president "somebody who's actually going to help people and not use them as talking points."
The campaign pulled the press aside before Edwards' second event at Keene State University to have it film Edwards standing in front of his bus saying, "[the Clinton] campaign doesn't seem to have a conscience."
"Somehow everything is about them," said Edwards. "It's an indication that they have no conscience about what's at stake here. These families are what this is about. It's not about them nor is it about me."
Conflict and mudslinging between the campaigns is catnip for the national press, and the sharp words between Edwards and Clinton (particularly the "doesn't seem to have a conscience" line) will almost certainly dominate whatever time is left over after the press covers the growing spat between Obama and Clinton. Maybe that was Edwards' intention; currently holding third in New Hampshire polls, Edwards might have felt he needed to engage one of the frontrunners to draw attention to his events. It's a shame. Rarely do campaign events carry such poignancy or so thoroughly illustrate why progressives fight. By making sure the press heard him say that the Clinton campaign treats real people as part of the political game, Edwards was playing that same game. The events today, and the families showcased in them, deserve greater exposure than they will get and more respect than they received from the candidates.
Photos: Top, Edwards stands with his wife Elizabeth on stage in Manchester, NH; Middle, Edwards does a "press avail" between events; Bottom, Edwards campaigns in front of a massive American flag in Keene.