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|Photo by Sara B. Davis|
But loyalty to friends aside, when I heard Edwards was running for president, my immediate reaction was “You’ve got to be kidding.” No offense, but how could a political newcomer seriously contend for the top job? The first-term senator from North Carolina hadn’t even been politically active before virtually buying himself a Senate seat. Didn’t North Carolina have business that needed tending to?
Plenty of people in my native state are muttering pretty much the same thing. Or so I learned when I traveled to North Carolina last week to probe the heart of John Edwards in the heart of John Edwards country.
“He hadn’t spent enough time working in the Senate,” observed Frank A. Daniels Jr., the retired publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer. “He got bit by the bug when Gore almost picked him to be vice president. He started looking at who the alternatives were. He started assessing his own abilities and his own chances.”
But Daniels himself has been won over, so much so that he went to South Carolina to campaign on Edwards’ behalf. Edwards won in South Carolina but couldn’t stem the rising tide this week for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in Tennessee and Virginia. Still, Edwards, who is raising money and attending a rally in Los Angeles this week, may prove the last standing alternative to
frontrunner Kerry for the Democratic presidential nomination. And Edwards looks awfully appealing, even to Kerry supporters, as a potential No. 2 on the ticket. Daniels thinks so, too, but doesn’t subscribe to the entire populist package that Edwards presents, especially any suggestion that Edwards is down-home humble.
“He’s got tremendous assurance, tremendous ambition,” said Daniels. “To run for the presidency of the United States has got to take tremendous balls, and he’s got brass balls. His mother makes a pretty apt comment when she says, ‘People have always underestimated my son.’ I surely underestimated him.”
Edwards’ political rise is all the more remarkable given a personal tragedy from which his closest friends wondered if he would recover. In 1996, Edwards’ 16-year-old son Wade died in a freak accident, and Edwards fell into near emotional paralysis, almost unrecognizable as the state’s most celebrated, most successful and most self-confident personal-injury attorney. Edwards’ entry into politics and even the presidential race is, at some level, a response to this tragedy, though the subject remains discomfiting and painful for Edwards and all who know him well.
“He would have been in politics anyway,” said Edwards’ former law-firm partner David Kirby. “But the death of his son accelerated his entry into politics.”
Through it all, the fundamental John Edwards remains something of a mystery. It’s difficult to know his political imperatives because his record of public service is thin, his short time in the Senate unremarkable. To some, he brings to mind John F. Kennedy, who served just over one full Senate term. Kennedy, too, projected idealism and intellect. JFK also was driven by his father’s naked ambition to have a son become president.
As for Edwards, his courtroom brilliance is documented, his oratory speaks for itself and his personal values stand upright, but his commitment to causes beyond the political benefit of the moment remain a trial without yet a verdict.
My first look at Edwards, in a June 2003 Town Hall in Raleigh, showed a skilled politician who genially reflected his state’s traditional values, which included his support of George Bush’s Iraq war resolution — even as he challenged Bush in other realms.
Fast-forward to a week ago. The Edwards that I caught up to in South Carolina barely resembled the laid-back moderate at the Town Hall. It was as though Edwards, a youthful 50, had been injected with adrenalin andcharisma — and it wasn’t just the rockabilly soundtrack that pumped his entrance and exit. He’d come up with a truly seductive stump speech, delivered with passion, about “Two Americas”: one for the rich and the corporations — “those who have everything they need” — and one for the rest of us, living “paycheck to paycheck.” The speech is short on specifics, but long on populism and drama. Perhaps he was still a Southern moderate, perhaps not. It was sort of hard to tell, even as the cheering rose, almost without fail, every time he thundered: “Not in our America! Not in our America!”
I, too, had underestimated this silk-tongued Southerner, who’s won over increasing numbers in the jury of voters. All of which is no surprise to attorneys who have seen him at work.
“Whether it’s 12 people sitting in a box with him, or it’s one person or it’s the whole country, he’s not up there giving a speech, he’s talking — he connects with people,” said Raleigh criminal-defense attorney G. Bryan Collins. “He finds a way to relate to people. He’s got an almost unique ability to communicate with people of all walks of life without being condescending or patronizing.”