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Searching for the Heart of John Edwards

Photo by Sara B. Davis

For some years, I’ve had two unusual links to John Edwards, the trial attorney–turned–presidential contender. First, Edwards was senior partner in the small law firm that employed a close friend, someone I’d grown up with in North Carolina. And second, another close childhood friend had been a client of Edwards in a heartbreaking, landmark case that Edwards had tried brilliantly.

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 and charisma — 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.”

When John Edwards the lawyer interviewed prospective jurors, he’d roll his leather-bound swivel chair right to the carved wooden railing of the jury box, sit down and have an eye-to-eye conversation. He wanted to know each individual’s heart and intellect. And during the trial, he always watched each jury member closely. At what moments did a person look bored, engaged, confused? And what was he going to do about it? For a panel that included a real estate agent, for example, Edwards explained complicated evidence with metaphors drawn from the real estate business.

Once, when his junior associate, Mark Holt — the friend I grew up with — called for advice during a trial, Holt started to describe how the testimony had transpired as planned. Edwards interrupted impatiently. He didn’t want to know about evidence. He counted on Holt to handle that capably. It was the jury he wanted to hear about. What exactly had the faces of jury members shown throughout the day?

It took a while for Edwards to translate this one-on-one courtroom magic to an auditorium and a television audience. Because he has, he has a chance to be president. But what is this achievement but the skill of a talented politician, one who predictably defines himself as something different and fresh? That’s a familiar and none-too-fresh claim.

In the end, how much is Edwards the malleable advocate, with positions based on what he thinks most people want to hear, especially if it will advance his career? Does he hold progressive core beliefs that he could marshal into progressive policy?

Edwards’ courtroom victories suggest a positive answer, showcasing as they do his desire to right wrongs, to see justice — in financial terms at least — delivered to victims who’ve suffered because of medical malpractice, a defective product or an indifferent corporation focused exclusively on the bottom line.

One notable case involved the family of my friend Harry Howard, with whom I’d also grown up. Harry’s brother and his brother’s wife had died when the driver of a 30,000-pound tractor-trailer lost control, crossed the center line of a narrow, dangerous road and plowed into their car. Their 4-year-old son was orphaned. Edwards and his team, which included my lawyer pal Mark Holt, argued that the driver was negligent and that his company’s policies encouraged unsafe driving. One reason that Harry’s mother had pursued the case was to send a message to trucking companies. Edwards later noted, “Trucking firms in North Carolina were soon placing greater emphasis on driver-safety training. They were equipping more and more of their vehicles with governors to regulate driving speed. Some companies even abandoned the practice of paying drivers by the mile.”

But Edwards was less encouraged by another response. Insurance-company lobbyists subsequently prevailed on a bill that disallowed punitive damages related to an employee’s actions, “unless that particular action was specifically ratified by corporate officers,” wrote Edwards in Four Trials, his book published to coincide with his presidential campaign.

“Yes,” wrote Edwards, “our lawsuit had sent a message, and that message ultimately was: If you don’t like the law, change it . . . The message to me, on the other hand, was one I’d confronted over my legal career and I’d grown to appreciate: If you can’t help enough people being a lawyer, consider being a lawmaker.”

 

Ask numerous Edwards’ associates and they’ll tell you they knew almost nothing of his political aspirations or political views before he ran for office. Partner David Kirby insisted he had regular political discussions with Edwards, during which Edwards demonstrated concern for public education and helping the disadvantaged. (Part of Edwards’ platform is to make college tuition free for the first year for every person who is qualified to attend a public college and is willing to work part-time.) Kirby’s account could well be true, but then again, Edwards’ loyal friend is himself renowned as a rhetorical strategist.

Edwards’ legal career was not noteworthy for public-interest law or pro bono work. And while Edwards’ clients were typically sympathetic victims, their good fortune in the courtroom also was his. The firm typically received 25 percent to 40 percent of the judgment as its fee — standard for lawyers who work on a contingency basis. Edwards’ firm would receive nothing for its work in a lost case.

“The practicing of law wasn’t about money to John Edwards,” said Kirby. “It sounds like a ‰ disconnect here, but that’s true. He was financially secure for a lifetime. He could have retired at age 40. He practiced law because of the mental challenge. He was a fierce competitor, and most importantly, he practiced law because he truly loved his clients.”

The size of the judgment in the Howard case, which would support the orphaned boy, was due in large measure to Edwards’ skill at portraying what a fine man Harry’s brother had been. Indeed, everything he said about Harry’s brother was true, and the jury responded. But would the jury have awarded less money to the family of a more ordinary man who died under the same circumstances? Such is the lottery-like nature of tragedy, courtroom outcomes and the caliber of your advocate.

Many doctors and insurance companies blame skyrocketing malpractice rates on lawyers like Edwards, who win huge damages awards by successfully playing on a jury’s heartstrings. The North Carolina Medical Society has gathered disturbing anecdotal evidence, such as the case of a 51-year-old Hendersonville-area neurosurgeon. This doctor, in a high-risk specialty, saw his insurance rates rise from $60,000 in 2002 to $194,000 in 2003, even though, he said, no one had ever successfully pursued a malpractice claim against him. He was the only neurosurgeon in that part of the state when he packed up for another state. Million-dollar verdicts in North Carolina grew from 5 percent to 20 percent of cases over a 10-year period, said urologist Joseph Jenkins, who headed the Professional Liability Insurance Reform Task Force for the North Carolina Medical Society. Said Jenkins: “John Edwards set in motion, with his success, and in particular, his pursuit of cerebral-palsy cases, a litigation lottery mentality, built, for example, around the unscientific concept that if a child has cerebral palsy, it’s automatically the doctor’s fault.”

Attorney David Kirby, in turn, pointed out he and Edwards carefully screened inquiries for cases with genuine merit. He also cited estimates of 98,000 deaths a year from medical mistakes. He blamed rising malpractice rates on insurance companies that can no longer count on high dividends from premiums invested in the stock market as well as on the rising cost of medical care.

The senator’s critics, in essence, argue that trial attorneys, with Edwards as a trendsetter, have done harm to the masses while helping individual, sympathetic clients and also enriching themselves. Jenkins added that Edwards has protected trial lawyers at the federal level, too. Edwards would counter that he’s protecting the rights of the clients of trial lawyers. Overall, a Democratic voter might well conclude that Edwards’ empathy with victimized clients could translate to better governance than George W. Bush’s natural empathy with the already rich.

 



The evolving Edwards: As high
school standout for North
Moore Mustangs(BOTTOM LEFT); at law
school graduation with future
wife (RIGHT); and at wedding to
Elizabeth Anania

Photos Courtesy Edwards campaign

Legal triumphs did, in fact, allow Edwards to join the ranks of the wealthy. But he started from near scratch, as the eldest son of teenage mill workers who lived in a three-room company house. His father would labor all his life to creep into the middle class, and watched with pride as the boy he christened “Johnny” became the first family member to attend college. After graduation from law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he married Elizabeth Anania, a girl he’d noticed in his first class, someone whom he’d immediately concluded was smarter and more sophisticated than he’d ever be.

As they pursued their legal careers, John and Elizabeth Edwards doted on their son, Wade, and daughter, Cate, now a college senior. Edwards, recalled a colleague, once flew home from a deposition in Denver just to see Wade play in the YMCA league, then flew back to Denver. Edwards’ habit was to go through intense periods when he’d focus on a trial, then compensate for it with intense parenting. An end table at his old law office groans with plaques and trophies from when he coached his children’s sports teams. Photos of his children cover another bureau, along with a framed black-and-white photo of his wife as a raven-haired young beauty. In preparation for the courtroom, Edwards sometimes found inspiration by contrasting his clients’ grief with his own personal happiness. He’d compare the loss of one client’s parents to his own joyous times spent with his son and daughter. He’d look at a child with brain damage and note that she was almost exactly the same age as his son.

These images loom like an omen in Edwards’ book, when he describes the sweetness and intelligence of his son, and how Wade would have made a good minister, and how Wade talked of someday joining his father in the law firm. In the summer of 1995, Edwards and son tackled Mt. Kilimanjaro together, something for which Wade had prepared all summer. Edwards, busy with legal work, had not trained, but typically declined to back down from the challenge. Both made the summit, the elder Edwards in a world of pain, but buoyed by the promise of the young man blossoming before him.

Wade Edwards, 16, died the following year, on April 4, 1996, when a sudden gust of coastal wind caused his Jeep Grand Cherokee to flip over. His father, who’d mastered every situation the courtroom could throw at him with daring, brains and relentless preparation, suddenly had no answer. “Here’s a guy who has more energy than any human being you’ve ever known, and he was paralyzed,” said a family friend. “John and Elizabeth would sit on the couch and we would sit on chairs, and we would just look at each other.”

His law partner David Kirby lived a few doors down from Edwards’ elegant white colonial, and he’d stopped by almost every night to talk to Edwards, and virtually assist him to bed.

Edwards returned to life with projects that honored his son — at Wade’s high school, a memorial bench and sculpture shaped like the tail of a flaming comet; at the gravesite, a 10-foot-tall, 10-ton sculpture of an angel carved from Vermont marble by a noted artist. And across the street from the high school stands the Wade Edwards Learning Lab, with computer-assisted tutoring for any student who needs it.

As a friend tells it, the building had not been for sale when Edwards inquired about it. “I need this building,” he told the owner, who said it still wasn’t for sale. “You don’t understand,” said Edwards persistently. “I need this building.”

Edwards and his wife also dealt with their loss by having two more children, the youngest, Jack, was born after Elizabeth Edwards had turned 50.

Edwards finally returned to work and won his two largest judgments ever, $25 million and $23 million, in the last two lawsuits he ever tried. Each tripled the state’s largest previous awards in contested cases for product liability and malpractice, respectively.

The case of Valerie Lakey had clear public-policy implications for the future senator. Valerie had nearly died at age 5 when caught in the suction of a pool drain. The accident tore out 80 percent of her small intestine and 50 percent of her large intestine. Valerie’s father, David, spearheaded a successful legislative drive requiring pools in North Carolina to have two drains, a safety feature that could have prevented the tragedy. In the trial, Edwards and Kirby uncovered a series of previous tragedies that had not spurred the company to remedy its product.



In 1997, little Valerie Lakey drew a
picture to thank attorney John Edwards,
who won a record judgment in her case.
Now 16, Valerie declined to have her picture
taken, offering instead this more recent
drawing.


Valerie, now 16, faces a lifetime of expensive health challenges, but has emerged from her ongoing ordeal a smart, slightly sassy teen, with a waif-like attractiveness and a taste for goth.

“We think the world of John Edwards,” said Valerie’s mother, Sandy. “We think he’s extremely intelligent and articulate and would be an awesome president.”

Edwards’ final cases marked a turning point, said Kirby. “He was even better at representing these people, more connected to his clients, after the death of his son. He felt it. He could communicate to others what it is like to have this loss. But I think it was too painful from an emotional standpoint.

“We’re in the misery business,” added Kirby. “We deal with loss and injury here, in particular we represent a lot of children who are killed, brain-damaged, horribly burned. Having lost his own child, it became a very difficult, emotional struggle for John.”

 

When Edwards ran for the Senate in 1998, his Republican opposition salivated at taking on a “trial lawyer,” as they’re dismissively called in North Carolina. But Edwards fashioned himself the people’s lawyer, while also spending $6 million of his own fortune. As a senator, Edwards won admirers for his work defending against the impeachment of Bill Clinton. He also helped shape a patient “bill of rights” that failed to get through a Republican Congress.

But Edwards the president?

Retired editor Frank Daniels fielded the question over breakfast at Big Ed’s in Raleigh. “I thought Edwards was running for president too soon,” said Daniels. “On the other hand, when is it not too soon? I don’t know the answer to that, and I haven’t met anybody yet who does. I think Edwards combines judgment and common sense. And let’s face it, 98 percent of being president is picking good people and having the judgment to know what is going on. George Bush showed poor judgment.

“And I think Edwards understands that if you want to do anything for this country, you’ve got to represent somebody other than those folks who have money. I have some money. I believe in people trying to get some, but I also believe people have an opportunity to give as much as they can get, achieve whatever they can achieve. I think John Edwards advocates that far, far better than anybody who’s been running in recent times.”

But the peerless attorney also will be pressed to demonstrate, over time, that he’s doing more than arguing a case to get a win. And that the pursuit of this goal won’t gradually turn him into just another politician weaving together the right words to get elected. And that his clients truly are the voiceless and dispossessed.