John and Elizabeth Edwards were sitting along a coastal creek in South Carolina the other day, talking with environmentalists about global warming, when Mrs. Edwards mentioned that she was prepared to give up tangerines.
Much of the next hour was devoted to reporters' attempts to clarify this matter.
John Edwards has a plan to cap carbon emissions, while allowing businesses to buy the right to go over their quotas. Many people regard this as the most efficient and politically salable way to reduce greenhouse gases. But they usually acknowledge that it would make some products - like small orange fruits that have to be transported a long way to get to market - more expensive.
"I live in North Carolina; I'll probably never eat a tangerine again," Elizabeth said.
The Edwards family could afford to continue eating tangerines even if they became more costly than a two-family house in Des Moines. But I digress.
Was John Edwards prepared to admit that the public might have to give up tangerines in order to keep the polar bears from drowning in the arctic?
"I'd have to think about it," he said later that day.
The Edwards campaign has devoted immense effort to beating back the image of their candidate as The Man With the Expensive Haircut. They don't want to make August the month for The Man Who Would Take Away America's Citrus Fruit.
Still this was, in its little tiny way, an integrity litmus test. Edwards is supposed to be the candidate with the "big, bold positions." Asked for his top three priorities at a meeting with steelworkers here, he named four: end the war in Iraq; achieve universal health care; end global warming; end poverty and inequality in America.
Can you have this kind of to-do list without a price tag? Nobody expects politicians to dwell on the down side of their ideas. You just want some assurance that there's an intellectual honesty at work, and that deep down, a candidate appreciates how tough big, bold change will be.
And it's early in the presidential campaign; we should be savoring possibilities. There will be plenty of time later to decide that the best we can hope for is someone electable who will refrain from invading inappropriate countries.
On tangerine day, the first stop of the Edwards campaign had been Kitty's Soul Food in Charleston, where some people waited two or more hours just to see the candidate and shake his hand. Mitch and Mandy Norrell drove 176 miles from Lancaster where they have a joint law practice. The Norrells, like Edwards, were the products of striving families of textile workers. Mandy specializes in bankruptcy law, and "about a third of my filings are people who have to choose between mortgage and medical bills. That's why I love John Edwards. He gets it."
All the serious presidential contenders have supporters like this. The best candidate is going to be the one who comes closest to deserving them.
Which brings us back to the question of whether John Edwards is capable of admitting that his plan to end global warming might require some sacrifice on, say, the tangerine front.
"It does have a cost impact. No question about it," the candidate said at the end of the day, as his car bounced along to the airport.
Elizabeth Edwards joined in, pointing out that it would create incentives for people to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. "I think that's a good thing," she said
"And she likes tangerines," her husband laughed.
And John Edwards, having said something candid, flew off into the horizon.
Wednesday morning, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign called to clarify his position. The global warming program would not require families to pay more for everyday products, he said. "We are optimistic we will not have to raise the price of tangerines."