Her good humor aside, Elizabeth Edwards has been shaped by tragedy. In April 1996, the couple’s 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car accident while driving with friends to the family’s beach house on North Carolina’s Figure Eight Island. Devastated, John Edwards quit the law and ultimately launched his campaign for the Senate.
Though both Elizabeth and John strain to keep mention of Wade’s death out of their political activities, they are committed to his memory. Edwards wears his son’s Outward Bound pin on his lapel. They created a computer lab for Raleigh’s disadvantaged children in his name. “The greatest thing you can do for me,” Elizabeth once told me, “is remember my son to me 25 years from now.”
Different as she is from her husband, she is dedicated to his political ambitions. I once asked her why he should be president.
“He’s really smart,” she said. “He has really good judgment. He’s highly moral.”
But what are his qualifications? I asked.
“He’s over 34 years old, and he was born in this country,” she deadpanned.
I pressed her, and she finally said, “We’ve been through a lot, and I don’t want him to have another unhappy day in his life. If this is what he wants, then I want him to have it.”
Part of her fascination with her husband’s quest for the presidency seems rooted in an affinity she has for the Kennedy family, almost as if she herself were searching for Camelot. She remembers going with her father to see the christening of the USS John F. Kennedy. And possibly because of her own tragedy, she admires the Kennedys for all they’ve been through and the “emotional armor” they seem to don in public.
When the Edwardses bought a house in Georgetown last year, they found one near where Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived when they first came to Washington. The home’s boxwood garden was designed by Perry Wheeler, whom the Kennedys commissioned to help design the White House Rose Garden.
Sitting on a table at the foot of their bed during a tour of their home last summer was a copy of a Saturday Evening Post from June 1968 with Bobby Kennedy on the cover campaigning in California. The headline read: “Go Bobby Go Bobby. How Bobby Kennedy Plans to Win It.”
She had found the magazine in a used-book store for $3. She bought it, she said, because it came out just days before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
People magazine named Edwards sexiest politician in 2000, and women on the campaign trail talk about his looks. I have seen college-age girls bat their eyes at him. If he registers the attention, Edwards’s face does not betray him. Which is probably a good thing, given Democrats’ penchant for finding charismatic candidates who can’t keep their pants zipped. Edwards, you feel, could be left with an intern of any age. It’s not that he is prudish about sex; it’s just that he’s not always looking to get it.
His wife has complete confidence in his rectitude. “Anybody who knows anything about John knows that he’s lived his life in a personal way considerably different than how President Clinton did.”
On their first date in 1975, she recalls, they went dancing. “Guys were pretty aggressive in those days,” she says. But Edwards dropped her off with a peck on the forehead. “It was such a sweet gesture.”
Shortly thereafter, she says, she got an angry rash over her face and neck, so bad that her doctor recommended that she quit law school for the rest of the year. Edwards was unflinching. “He brought me little gifts,” she says. “I looked awful, but he never looked at me like I looked awful. He didn’t look at me in any different way.”
Like any fresh presidential contender, Edwards has attracted political advisers from the entire spectrum of the party. Early in his campaign, he listened to old-style liberals like Bob Shrum, who has long worked for Ted Kennedy. Talking in the other ear, he’s had centrists like Steve Jarding, who believes Democrats must raid rural areas for pro-gun voters. (Both Shrum and Jarding left Edwards’s campaign last winter.)
Attracting such a range of talent has made for some strange bedfellows. There’s Jonathan Prince, a speechwriter from New York who wears funky rimless glasses and looks like George Michael only more effeminate. The first time I met Prince, he explained that he was a “Clinton guy”--to separate himself from the loser Gore crowd.
I found Prince’s alter ego in David Saunders, who was until recently Edwards’s “rural liaison.” Saunders goes simply by “Mudcat,” as in “Hi, I’m Mudcat.” He often wears a cap that reads “Betty Ford Clinic--Outpatient.”
A longtime political operative from southwest Virginia, Saunders played a key role in convincing rural voters to back Democrat Mark Warner in the 2001 governor’s race. One of his contributions was to write a bluegrass song for Warner’s campaign that glorifies, among other things, rural Virginia’s moonshine-making ways.
As might be expected, the disparate voices have led to discord. The starkest example can be seen in his polar campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire. In Iowa, where Jarding and Mudcat ran things, Edwards sponsored a stock car and flew three former baseball greats in for a day at the ballpark. In New Hampshire, where ex-Gore strategist Nick Baldick calls the shots, Edwards meets with groups of public-radio Democrats, a dozen at a time, to eat tofu and talk about issues.
Even some people within his inner circle express concern that the candidate may not have the steel to unite his staff. The nastier divisions have spilled out of the office.
When I asked questions about the senator’s strategy for wooing rural voters, Mike Briggs, Edwards’s press secretary, told me emphatically, “There is no rural strategy.”
Briggs relented somewhat when New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai called to interview the senator for a story about “NASCAR Democrats.” Bai was told he could interview Edwards during an Iowa Cubs baseball game in Des Moines.
Mudcat was in Iowa that weekend escorting the ex-baseball greats brought in to campaign for Edwards. When Bai’s promised interview with Edwards hadn’t materialized after several hours, Mudcat, Bai, and I set out to look for the senator. As we approached the VIP entrance to the stadium, we saw a black sedan loaded with people.
“Hey, there’s Edwards,” I said as it started to pull away. Edwards was being whisked off to the airport. Furious, Mudcat took off after the car on foot. “Hold on! Hold on!” he shouted, waving his hands wildly behind the car. “I got the New York Times here, and he wants to interview you!”
Edwards never turned his head. From the back seat, Briggs turned around, grinned, and waved out the back window.
Hype about Edwards has snowballed. GQ touted him as “the next Bubba,” and insiders are talking about him as a “big, big talent, maybe the biggest since Clinton,” according to the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann.
Edwards’s political gifts are obvious--he’s smart and good-looking, and he has an insane drive to succeed. Though still a newcomer to Democratic politics, he’s got more fundraising clout than most party elders.
Still, I find it odd that Edwards is running with the big bulls as Clinton’s heir apparent. He’s got none of Clinton’s mojo--no rhythm for campaiging, and no blistering passion. Compared to Clinton’s all-embracing worldview, his seems practical, even pedestrian.
It might be better to compare Edwards to George W. Bush. Both connect with small groups but seem adrift with crowds. Both came to politics late in life. And both made a move for the presidency after less than six years in elected office.
While a neophyte candidate, Bush called in a host of experts to school him on the nuts and bolts of policy. But he had fundamental ideas about the role of government--ideas that mixed his father’s noblesse oblige with the hard-right conservativism of his beloved Texas. Politically, he knew who he was.
Edwards still seems to be defining himself politically, groping through the klieg lights as he searches for why he is here. Even now, after a year and a half of watching Edwards closely, I can’t say for sure who exactly he is or what he stands for. I came to Washington to find the real John Edwards. Politically, at least, the candidate still seems to be searching for him, too.
Will this hurt him? Maybe. But it could also be a plus. Democrats are desperate for a new leader, and the longer Edwards’s beliefs stay fuzzy, the better chance he has of getting voters to invest in him as a fresh face--and a blank slate.
His ideological ambivalence also mirrors the country’s. If he’s not a statesman for the ages, he’s certainly a politician of his times.
Charles Hurt covered Senator John Edwards first for the Charlotte Observer and then for the Washington Times. Before coming to Washington, he reported on city politics and wrote investigative stories for the Detroit News.