Beyond the Run of the Mill

Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, who both have humble roots in the mill towns of the South Carolina foothills, returned for the state's Democratic Party convention in June 2003 to support their son's first presidential bid.
Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, who both have humble roots in the mill towns of the South Carolina foothills, returned for the state's Democratic Party convention in June 2003 to support their son's first presidential bid. (By Robert Willett -- Raleigh News & Observer/zuma Press Via Newscom)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Early in the morning, the young boy would wake up to find his dad bathed in the light from the television, a notepad on the table in front of him.

John Edwards's father, Wallace, a small-town millworker with a high school education, would be taking math courses on instructional TV before reporting to work. He was always trying to better himself, to get ahead at a company that did not seem to respect, or advance, anyone without a college degree.

Wallace's status at the textile company, where he worked for more than 30 years, cast a shadow on the Edwards home. The son knew that his knowledgeable, motivated father was routinely overlooked for supervisory positions. Even worse, he was often asked to train the people hired as his superiors. It was a painful lesson that John Edwards never forgot.

"I saw my father, one of the finest people I've ever known, struggle because he didn't have a college education," Edwards says. "To me, he was a perfect example of somebody who was strong and good and worked incredibly hard, but they were bumping their head against the ceiling."

Of all the 2008 presidential candidates, Edwards talks the most about where he came from: the working-class mill towns of the Carolinas and Georgia.

Always describing himself as "the son of a millworker," he tells stories of family hardships -- the one about his father having to borrow $50, at 100 percent interest, to bring his newborn son home from the hospital is a favorite -- and says he identifies with "the little guy." But he does so with such glibness, and frequency, and it contrasts so greatly with who he is today -- a polished former trial lawyer worth millions -- that the truth of his biography is sometimes lost. These days, Edwards's $400 haircuts and $6 million house garner the lion's share of attention, and he is testimony to the fact that youthful good looks aren't necessarily a political asset.

In an interview, Edwards dismisses the accusations of phoniness as "just politics." The rich-lawyer label rankles a little, though not enough for him to abandon the trappings that he has worked so hard to obtain. "What I want to say to people is 'Well, if I hadn't been successful, would that make me better qualified to be president?' " he asks.

On the campaign trail, however, he doesn't mind poking fun at himself. "My parents actually brought me home to a little house in Seneca, South Carolina," he told an appreciative crowd in last month in Bow, N.H. "Today, as many of you have heard, I don't live in a little house."

But there is another John Edwards, the one who tooled around tiny Robbins, N.C., in a red Plymouth Duster as a teenager, who took the greasiest summer jobs at the mill to earn money for college, who still often forces his staff to eat at Cracker Barrel because it reminds him oh-so-faintly of the big meals his mother used to cook. "You can never forget where you came from," he says more than once, and friends from the old days insist he is, at his core, still one of them.

"I've known that man over 40 years, and he's the real deal," says the Rev. John L. Frye Jr., pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, N.C., and one of Edwards's best boyhood friends. "I don't hear him saying anything different than the interests he truly has in his heart. I don't have any kind of disconnect."

To see Edwards at work in New Hampshire, where he came in an embarrassing fourth among Democrats in 2004, is to see his father's son in action, determined to overcome some pretty long odds. This go-round, he has four times the number of field organizers in the state, and he has logged countless hours in small-town forums and community meeting rooms. Armed with a 76-page plan for fighting rural poverty and helping the working poor, he has repositioned himself as the populist who "will fight for you."

Maybe something in him relishes being the underdog. But Edwards acknowledges that other forces also propel him.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company