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


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.

Edwards on the campaign trail is guarded. Whether he’s wooing voters or chatting with reporters, he’s no John McCain. When talking to Edwards, even off the record, I often find myself wanting to say, “This is not a trick question, not a deposition. I just want to know what your favorite movie is.”

Once I asked him what he was reading for pleasure. Based on the look he gave me, it was a dumb question, so I changed the subject. Later, I broached the topic again, and he told me he was reading The Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. The next time I asked him--about six months later--he again said Founding Brothers. During a tour of his home, I saw on his bedside table The Winner, a thriller by David Baldacci.

Edwards enjoys fishing from time to time, according to his wife. But otherwise he appears to have few outside interests. For the most part, his life has been focused on his law practice, his political career, and his family.

He and Elizabeth have a 21-year-old daughter, Cate, at Princeton, and two younger children--Emma Claire, 5, and John Atticus, 2, who was named after the incorruptible Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird.

•••

Clinton in 1992 campaigned on a platform of “Putting People First,” and Edwards is hitting similar populist notes. In the race against Faircloth and in speeches after he announced his presidential bid, Edwards told audiences that he spent his career in the courtroom “fighting for the little guy who played by the rules and lost.”

Possibly the most populist of the Democratic wannabes, he says that in the White House he wants to represent textile workers and make sure grandma doesn’t have to choose between her medication and a gift for her grandchildren.

Edwards’s populist credentials are legitimate, despite his multimillion-dollar fortune. The son of a textile-mill worker, he grew up in the North Carolina town of Robbins, population 1,200. He was the first in his family to go to college.

Yet he lacks--or refuses to tap into--the visceral connection that populists from Huey Long to Jesse Helms have with voters. He doesn’t connect with crowds on a gut level; rather, he engages people as if he’s applying for a job. He’s impressive, but there’s nothing larger than life about him.

Indeed, he seems to have no heartfelt ideology. Edwards describes his political philosophy as favoring prosperity and the realization of the American Dream for all people. Asked about her husband’s political vision, his wife talked about his “problem-solving mind”--as if he were running for national office manager.

Moreover, the nitty-gritty politics that drive most people in Washington seem to disgust Edwards. He speaks so derisively of politics, politicians, and the political process that you sometimes wonder why he’s here.

Edwards’s stardom has come so suddenly that he has had to contend with accusations from Republicans--and whispers from Democrats--that he is a lightweight. To counter that impression, he began assembling a platform.

Last fall, long after he began his unofficial campaign for president, Edwards rolled out major speeches on everything from family to foreign policy. Each was thoughtful but lacked passion. They were so stuffed with seriousness that they sounded like doctoral dissertations.

Even when Edwards is passionate about an issue, his views seem to be sanded down by a campaign apparatus that scripts everything. During a casual conversation, I once asked him whether he thought there was room for tort reform in the legal system. Despite his spirited defense of trial lawyers, Edwards conceded that changes were needed. I told him that his thoughts could make an interesting story, and he agreed to an interview. But when I called to schedule the conversation, his office declined.

Civil rights also seems to be a passion of Edwards, but his staff has stiff-armed my efforts to explore the issue with him. Last fall in stump speeches he mentioned his memories of the civil-rights movement as a young boy growing up in the Carolinas. He said equality for blacks today has not yet been attained. This was new, so I asked to interview him.

After several months of trying to schedule a talk on the topic, a top aide explained over lunch that Edwards’s office needed to hash out the senator’s opinions on tort reform and race relations before he would submit to an interview.

•••

Though he’s now a politician, Edwards hasn’t forgotten the instructions every lawyer gives his clients before a deposition. Only answer the questions asked. Never volunteer anything. Be polite without being helpful. Make them work for it.

In interviews, Edwards gets prickly if he thinks a question might tarnish his starring role in “Atticus Finch Goes to Washington.”

I interviewed Edwards at the height of last year’s debate surrounding campaign-finance reform, which he supported. Yet even as he voted to ban soft money, he was breaking records raising it. Of the $5.5 million he raised in 2002, $4.3 million was “soft money” that went to his PAC, New American Optimists, and helped fund the travel and expenses of his nascent presidential campaign.

When I asked Edwards whether he thought he was pushing the envelope (even under the old law) by spending the soft money in a way that advanced his presidential ambitions--to do so directly would have been illegal--he refused to answer on the record. When I pushed, he became petulant, saying the reasoning behind my question was illogical. For ten minutes I pressed, restating the question in different ways. Each time, he professed not to understand.

In the end, he was on the record refusing to sully his reputation by discussing money. Yet it would have been a rare day that he didn’t leave his Senate office and glide across Massachusetts Avenue to his sixth-floor PAC office to make dozens of calls asking for the very donations he’d just voted to outlaw.

•••

Maybe the most refreshing thing about John Edwards and his campaign for the White House is his wife, Elizabeth, three years his senior. The two met at the University of North Carolina law school and married 25 years ago. Pretty in an easy, natural way, she is completely unguarded, blunt, and often wickedly funny. She seems to have an abiding respect for institutions without taking them--or herself, or her husband--too seriously. Unlike her husband, she seems to enjoy the give and take of the campaign trail.

She talks about public policy as easily as she talks about the mole on her husband’s lip--or the fact that she doesn’t find him as gorgeous as everyone makes him out to be. She exudes all the brass and clarity that her husband does not.

I spent some time with Elizabeth Edwards last year for a profile of her. The story included a trip to the grocery store arranged by her husband’s press office. As we crossed the 14th Street bridge into Virginia on the way to a Harris Teeter grocery store near Pentagon City, she got lost. So much, she quipped, for “proving” that she does the family’s grocery shopping herself.

When the story came out, she was upset that I’d included the episode. She felt it suggested that she really didn’t do the family’s grocery shopping, which I’m sure she does. I always get lost going to that same store myself. My point was that the grocery trip seemed to be an effort by her husband’s office to “prove” that she’s a down-to-earth housewife.

We exchanged a few e-mails about her concerns, and the issue faded. But the next time I saw her--in the lobby of the Manchester Holiday Inn--she found an opportunity for revenge. It was very early in the morning, by my standards, and I stumbled out of the elevator in my clothes from the day before searching for shaving cream.

A voice exclaimed: “Charlie! Charlie!”

I rubbed my eyes and groped my pockets for my glasses. “Did your room come with a mirror?” Elizabeth Edwards asked impishly.

I tried matting down my hair and picked up my stride toward the gift shop. “I forgot my shaving cream,” I told her.

“Well, John has some upstairs you can borrow,” she said. Mortified at the thought of lathering up beside the senator in his undershorts, I demurred.

Elizabeth, I could tell, was enjoying this. After all, friends let friends borrow shave cream. And they don’t write things about them that make them look like rich, pampered housewives.

“C’mon,” said the senator’s wife. “John has plenty.” And she was off, with me in tow, to the elevator. Riding up, I asked where her husband might be.

“Oh, he went out for a run,” she said, then added, “but he’ll be back any moment now.”

“Okay,” I said to myself, “you win. I wish I’d left out the part about you getting lost on the way to the grocery store.”

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.