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From the Archives: Who Is John Edwards?
Our 2003 profile of the man Bill Clinton once called the “Michael Jordan” of politics, who today was found not guilty on one of six counts of campaign finance corruption.
By Charles Hurt
“In interviews, Edwards gets prickly if he thinks a question might tarnish his starring role in ‘Atticus Finch Goes to Washington.’” Photograph by Flickr user alexdecarvalho.
Comments () | Published May 31, 2012

This article first appeared in the May 2003 issue of The Washingtonian.

I was in the newsroom of the Detroit News when the phone rang. It was an editor from the Charlotte Observer asking if I would be interested in moving to Washington to cover North Carolina’s freshman senator, John Edwards.

I’d gotten offers from the Observer before but hadn’t been able to pull myself away from a nonstop news town like Detroit. This was different. For one thing, I would live in Washington. And the 48-year-old Edwards was a rising star in the Democratic party with White House ambitions.

Edwards fascinated me. Pundits talked about him as the second coming of Bill Clinton. Most of the Democratic contenders--Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, Al Gore--were known commodities. In Gore’s case, too well known. But Edwards was fresh, a rookie touted as hall-of-fame material.

Who is this guy? I wondered. Even before hanging up the phone with the Observer editor, I began filling a plastic crate with the personal items from my desk.

•••

The first time I met John Reid Edwards we were in the hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where he occupies the corner office that once belonged to Ted Kennedy. He was wearing the Senate uniform--a blue suit--sauced up with a cantaloupe-colored tie.

Edwards is invincibly young-looking, with a flop of sandy hair that bounces like a soccer player’s when he walks. He has an engaging manner. He moves in close, cocks his head to the side, and looks intently at you. He asked me where I was from and how I had wound up in DC.

Before coming to the Senate, Edwards had been a successful personal-injury lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina--and made himself a tidy fortune. He had won some of the largest jury awards in state history, including a $25-million verdict for Valerie Lakey, a five-year-old girl whose intestines had been sucked down a pool drain. He was so good that lawyers around town would go to the courthouse to hear him close.

As we talked, I could see why. If I’d been on the Lakey jury, I thought, I might have given that little girl $25 million too.

Something else struck me: Edwards seemed small. His driver’s license says he’s six feet tall, and he probably is. But standing in the Senate office building with its broad hallways, he seemed almost diminutive.

•••

Of course, Edwards would have been hard-pressed to live up to his mythic reputation. In 1998, when he unseated first-term Senator Lauch Faircloth, he was a political tenderfoot who had never run for office and didn’t even vote faithfully. Yet he won in a fairly conservative state that for more than two decades has voted to put Republicans in the White House and Jesse Helms in the Senate. The national press fawned over him and cast the story as David versus Goliath.

The truth is, Edwards’s win was not exactly miraculous. Even Republicans say Faircloth--a hog farmer--was a poor campaigner. Edwards poured more than $6 million of his fortune into the race.

In the Senate, Edwards’s skills as a talker got him even more attention. Then-majority leader Tom Daschle named him to key committees--both Judiciary and Intelligence--to beef up his resume. He won rave reviews from Democrats for his defense of Bill Clinton during the impeachment proceedings--he helped handle depositions of Monica Lewinsky and Vernon Jordan--and his work negotiating the patients’ bill of rights with John McCain.

Among his sharpest partisan handiwork was his tough questioning of Judge Charles Pickering, President Bush’s nominee to the federal appeals court last year. After Pickering’s nomination was scuttled, it was Edwards--then the Judiciary Committee’s most-junior member--who was given credit for the Borking of the nominee.

Edwards cross-examined Pickering about his handling of several civil-rights cases. Though the Mississippi judge had support from civil-rights groups back home and was credited with heroic efforts to uproot racism, Edwards portrayed him as a redneck who didn’t see anything wrong with burning a cross in somebody’s front yard.

Leaning against a wall at the back of the crowded hearing room, I marveled at how courteous--even gentle--Edwards was with the 64-year-old man, even as he cornered him and left him staring blankly into the lights and reaching for his water glass. If Edwards were ever to debate Bush, I decided, there would be no Gore-esque huffing and sighing.

•••

When he’s not doing his party’s dirty work on the Judiciary Committee, Edwards cultivates the image of fierce independence. Though he’s worked the middle ground on many issues-- National Journal recently rated his voting record the third most conservative among the seven Democratic presidential candidates in Congress--he’s been careful to distance himself from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

In the Senate cloakroom, Edwards courts his colleagues and plays the role of “good son.” He has referred to Teddy Kennedy as a mentor, proudly telling people that his office once belonged to the old liberal. After Edwards joined the Senate, vanity pictures on his office walls showed him with Jesse Helms, the conservative warhorse.

By 2000, Edwards had caught the eye of Vice President Al Gore, who put him on his short list of possible running mates. Gore ended up choosing Joe Lieberman, but Edwards’s star was rising.

•••

As a young, good-looking Southerner, Edwards is often compared to Bill Clinton. Texas lawyer and Edwards supporter Fred Baron told me that Clinton once called Edwards the “Michael Jordan” of politics. “From day one, he was a natural,” Baron said.

Edwards’s fundraising prowess confirms that he’s a man with political talent. Last year, he raked in $5.5 million--more than Al Gore raised when he was gearing up for his 2000 bid. In the first quarter of this year, Edwards surprised observers--and exceeded his own expectations--by raising $7.4 million for his presidential bid, more than any other contender.

Some of the party faithful are giddy about Edwards. On a rainy weekend last fall, he was in New Hampshire stumping for state and local candidates. When he entered the ballroom of the Manchester Holiday Inn, a crowd of 500 Democrats went berserk. As flashbulbs exploded, it looked like footage of one of the Beatles--complete with bowl cut--stepping off the plane in America in 1964.

Edwards impresses almost everyone with his charm, eagerness, and sincerity. An Iowa farmer that Edwards was helping in a bid for the state legislature told me, half irritated, “He’s as cute as a speckled puppy.”

This charm makes him very good at engaging small groups about the size of a jury. For the past year and a half, he’s traveled the country talking to such groups about his possible candidacy. At one “house party” in a New Hampshire living room, Edwards spoke Donahue-style to a dozen or so Democrats. He stood beside a polished piano and spoke in his soft Southern drawl.

“I bet some of you in this very room disagreed with my position on Iraq,” he said at one point, and the place stiffened. Edwards has been a strong proponent of military action in Iraq, and this was an antiwar crowd.

“Well, I want to explain to you how I reached this very important decision,” he continued gravely. He talked about the Intelligence Committee, his travels to Afghanistan, the world post-September 11--on and on until nearly everyone in the room was nodding approval. Later, a woman in wool socks and sandals told me that even though she’s fiercely antiwar, she was impressed that Edwards hadn’t skirted the issue. She said she would consider voting for him.

•••

Charm gets Edwards only so far. He has run only one political race in his life, and he’s still learning what it takes. In a big room, he can be terrible, trampling over applause or--worse--halting and waiting for applause that doesn’t come. Only in recent months has he gotten comfortable reading speeches, a departure from his years of delivering courtroom arguments largely off the top of his head.

Edwards can be so awkward that you want to step in and give him a hand. For that Beatles-like New Hampshire campaign event, he had worked hard on his speech. It had substance and roof-raising lines about New Hampshire candidates such as Katrina Swett, a local political star. She was running for a House seat once held by her husband, Dick; her father, Tom Lantos, is a prominent House member.

At the podium, Edwards tidied the pages of his speech until finally, still a little dazed by the applause, he began. When he got to the part about Katrina Swett--in the third line--he referred to her as “Christina.”

His wife, Elizabeth, seated at a table right under his nose, slapped both hands over her face. Edwards paused, as if rereading the line in his head. Some in the crowd looked at one another: Had he really screwed up the name?

He had, and he knew it. So he backed up and tried again. And again, he called her “Christina.” A scattered “oooooooo” rumbled from the crowd, but this time, he just kept going.

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Posted at 04:40 PM/ET, 05/31/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles