THE CONTENDERS: John Edwards
Running on The Story Of His Life
By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2003; Page A01
Early in the 20-minute stump speech, which John Edwards can deliver almost word-for-word without notes, the North Carolina senator says that he feels "an enormous personal responsibility" to provide voters an alternative to President Bush in 2004.
How did it come to be that Edwards, who is turning 50 on Tuesday and whose entire political career consists of one election and four-plus years in office, convinced himself that it was his duty -- or right -- to run for the White House?
It is his right, he told voters during a recent New Hampshire swing, because, "I hope you agree with me this is still a country where the son of a millworker can go toe-to-toe against the son of a president of the United States."
And it is his duty because -- well, because Edwards has believed from his youth that he has a calling to advocate for those like his parents, who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow.
As much as anyone in the nine-person Democratic field, Edwards is running on his autobiography -- and not just because his political record is shorter and skimpier than almost all his opponents' records. The narrative of his life provides a theme of great consistency and of potential force, a theme that would surely shape an Edwards presidency, should that ever occur.
The story is one of a relentless search for positions where he could intercede for "the people that I grew up with," hard-working, blue-collar families whose lives are shaped, often in harsh ways, by the companies that dominate their lives and their communities. It is a quest that impelled Edwards, whose parents never got beyond high school, to set down as an 11-year-old an ambition to become a lawyer and "protect innocent people from blind justice the best I can."
It carried him through college and law school and into a 20-year career as a trial lawyer, where he won huge settlements (and wealth for himself) for families who could claim they had been damaged -- mostly by large corporations.
When he entered politics for the first time in 1998, Edwards set his sights on the Senate, arguing that as a legislator, he could work on a larger scale and be more effective in protecting the victims of the powerful. And now, having learned after four years in the minority party how little a single senator can accomplish, Edwards is seeking the ultimate leverage point in American government: the presidency.
That this bespeaks huge personal ambition is recognized by all his colleagues. Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), officially neutral, nonetheless says, "I'm very high on John. . . . I think he'd tell you he has a healthy degree of ambition, but I think that's what the good ones have."
Several old friends cite conversations from which they surmised that Edwards was thinking about the White House even before he was elected to the Senate. Ed Turlington, a young lawyer who worked in the same firm as Edwards for a time, left North Carolina in 1997 to help lead Bill Bradley's run for the 2000 Democratic nomination. Turlington tried without success to persuade Edwards to back Bradley (he chose Al Gore). But no sooner did Bradley drop out than Edwards was on the phone, offering consolation and "asking, 'What are you going to do now? I'd like to talk to you about how we can work together.' " Well before Bush won, Turlington began introducing Edwards to influential Democrats from New Hampshire and other key states. Turlington is now chairman of Edwards's campaign.
Pleading for Fairness
What Edwards is offering -- beyond the ingratiating personality, the quick mind and the formidable preparation and attention to detail that made him so effective in the courtroom -- is a once-familiar form of southern populism more akin to that of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter than to the sophisticated policy wonkishness of Bill Clinton.
When Edwards speaks, there are no angry denunciations of Big Money. "I admire success," he says, and clearly he has used his own wealth to set up his parents in a very comfortable home, to establish youth charities, live luxuriously -- to say nothing of putting millions into his Senate race.
Much of his money for the current campaign comes from other, equally well-off trial lawyers, enriched as he was by their share of the awards they won for their clients. To the surprise of his rivals, Edwards led the field in first-quarter fundraising, a goal he had confided to former North Carolina governor James B. Hunt back in December. But some of the gloss came off the achievement with reports that at least one law firm employee said she had been promised reimbursement of her $2,000 donation by her boss. Edwards returned all the money the firm had given him.
Instead of classic populist anger, what you hear from Edwards is an instinctive, emotional plea for fairness and a rush of sympathy for those he thinks are getting a raw deal. He frames the issue around his father. "I knew what kind of man he was," Edwards said in an interview. "I knew how good a man he was and how much he cared about people around him. And to see sometimes the way he was treated because he didn't make so much money or because he didn't have a high school degree -- it didn't cause anger. But it felt unfair."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) chats with supporters at a United Auto Workers union local get-together this past month in Burlington, Iowa.
(Scott Morgan - AP)
_____More on Edwards_____
Edwards Brings Revival Message to N.Va. (The Washington Post, May 21, 2003)
The North Carolina Factor (The Washington Post, May 18, 2003)
The Sorting-Out Begins (The Washington Post, May 6, 2003)
High School Presidential (The Washington Post, May 5, 2003)
Law Firm's Donations To Edwards Probed (The Washington Post, Apr 24, 2003)
Edwards Returns Law Firm's Donations (The Washington Post, Apr 18, 2003)