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Mary McGrory

John Edwards -- Luck of the Drawl

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, January 5, 2003; Page B07

If Al Gore can say goodbye to presidential politics on "60 Minutes," it's probably okay for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina to say hello on the "Today" show. We hope, though, that it's not a trend. Seven in the morning is a bit early for shopping for a new leader, and not everybody can deal with the shrieks and giggles these dark dawns. Let us hope that the others in the clot of candidates at the starting gate will choose brighter hours.

Edwards, a trial lawyer who made a fortune representing people suing corporations, wishes to be "a champion for regular people" -- people like his father, a mill worker, and his mother, who worked in the post office.

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He will probably be the handsomest man in the race. He is, in the dismissive adjective of Republican tiger-woman Mary Matalin, "cute" -- and no other contender will remind you more of Leonardo DiCaprio. He is also a demon debater, which might be considered a crucial gift except that the last demon debater the Democrats fielded, Gore, lost all four encounters with nonverbal rival George W. Bush. An already-declared candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is also a master, having bested William Weld in the longest debate series since Lincoln-Douglas.

Edwards, at 49 and in his first term, is considered green by his detractors. He entered politics in 1998 after a lifetime of spectacular victories over errant companies and corporations.

His teenage son, Wade, was killed in a highway accident, and after that Edwards felt that he should do something more significant than winning in court. In the Senate, he fought against impeachment and for the patients' bill of rights.

Like John Kerry, Edwards opposes the Bush tax cuts. Like Kerry also, he voted for the resolution for war with Iraq. So did Richard Gephardt, who lobbied for it in the House, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who is as enthusiastic about the war as George Bush himself. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is alone in being against the resolution.

What sets Edwards apart so far is his drawl. Edwards was born in South Carolina and brought up in North Carolina. His party has been all but written off in the South since the accession of the Republicans' "Southern Strategy." Former Senate leader Trent Lott spilled the beans about that strategy at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party -- it's race-based. Edwards believes a southerner could make a unique contribution to the debate that he feels should take place about race relations. He plans to make it an issue, calling up his own experience growing up in a segregated South. He particularly remembers an emotional reunion of four North Carolina blacks who, as young men, sat down 40 years ago at a Greenville lunch counter and made history.

"It was a celebration, blacks and whites together, and it shows how far we have come. I feel a special obligation to show how mainstream people have completely changed. Political leaders have to lead on this stuff."

A driving issue with Edwards is the Bush administration's assault on civil liberties since 9/11. He will take on Attorney General John Ashcroft. "I know people have to feel safe, but they can feel safe but strong as far as individual liberties go. I talk about Ashcroft all the time, and the way they grab people, call them enemy combatants -- throw them in jail, deny them lawyers and keep them there indefinitely. In America, that is not okay. Do we stand for something? How can we expect to have any moral authority?"

Edwards thinks there has to be a special alertness about nasty practices we thought had been officially renounced a long time ago. In The Post, Dana Priest and Barton Gellman told of torture being used on enemy captives. Now it's called "stress and duress," but it's the same thing. Sometimes we farm out recalcitrant prisoners to countries that do not exhibit any squeamishness about torture. It is justified, presumably, by the exceptional threat of terrorism. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh told about the revival of assassination as a tactic. It was outlawed years ago, after the hearings chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho).

Edwards expects to make his campaign an assault on "insider government -- government by and for insiders." They are, he says, the kind of people he used to bring into court, tycoons who were indignant at being treated like anyone else and couldn't wait to get back to their clubs and mansions.

George W. Bush will doubtless accuse Edwards of class warfare. Edwards is ready, and also ready to show the toll terrorism is taking on our Constitution and our sense of justice.

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