John Edwards Ducks Rielle Hunter

Speaking at Brown University last night, the one-time presidential candidate for the first time publicly addressed the distress of one of his former supporters. (Definitely former—she was wearing a black Obama "HOPE" T-shirt.) It was a poignant moment.

Elise Amendola / AP Photo

Before a packed audience of almost 600 at Brown University last night, John Edwards made his second public appearance since the presidential election. At Indiana University in November, Edwards answered only prescreened questions. Edwards still seemed cautious—his contract for the Brown event specifically prohibited videotaping. But he did answer a variety of questions—unscreened this time—from students for almost a half hour. And, for the first time, he publicly responded to the disappointment of one former supporter who pressed the former senator about holding politicians to higher standards.

His half-hour speech, titled “Beautiful America,” focused on the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, the plight of the poor.

Was it right for the public to judge candidates by this higher moral standard? The question presented the tensest moment of the night.

If he was hoping for a sympathetic audience, Edwards picked the right place. Brown students asked questions about campus warhorses like youth activism, corporate social responsibility, and the drug war—nothing about his affair with former staffer Rielle Hunter.

One student, however, came close: Emilie Aries, a senior at Brown concentrating in political science, who had volunteered for the Edwards campaign for about a year, going door-to-door for him in New Hampshire.

“So as someone who believed in you,” she said, “I really wanted to afford you the opportunity to speak on something that I think Joe Trippi, your former campaign manager, explains pretty well toward the end of his book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. And in there, he says something about the American public judging candidates to hold a higher moral standard, on a higher moral standard, than they would judge normal people in our daily lives.”

Was it right for the public to judge candidates by this higher moral standard? The question presented the tensest moment of the night.

Edwards didn’t give a direct answer. He said, “I don't think it's for me to impose my judgment on anybody about what they can consider and what they can't consider. I think that I have my own view, which I'm going to keep to myself tonight, but I think in the long run it is enormously important for us to have the best thinkers, the most visionary people, and people who know where the country needs to go and where the world needs to go, I think that is absolutely crucial for America and the world.”

Afterward, Aries said she was less than satisfied. She was hoping for a fuller apology from the former candidate.

The one that came after the revelation of his affair was a disappointment. “I didn't want to hear about his ego, I wanted to hear him apologize to the people like me who worked to the point of illness on our own time, our Christmas, basically.”

The eerie silence in the lecture hall over Edwards’ affair also bothered Aries.

“It's stupid that we all have to sit in there thinking the same thing and nobody actually talks about it,” she said.

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Noting that poverty was the main reason she originally joined the Edwards campaign, Aries said Edwards had given the cause “a bad name,” despite its importance.

She left the same way she came in—wearing a black-and-white Obama “HOPE” shirt.

Overall, Edwards also seemed to expand his “Two Americas” theme to the world. He noted the 3 billion people worldwide who live on less than $2 a day. He mentioned climate change, population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, and water shortages. He said he was now dedicated to fighting poverty wherever it was.

“Somebody’s got to speak for these folks,” Edwards said. “Somebody, cause nobody speaks for them. They don’t vote. They sure don’t contribute to presidential campaigns or politics. Who will speak for them? Who will be their voice? They need us, they need you, they need me, they need somebody to be their voice, desperately.”

Matt Sledge is a writer living in Providence.