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.
“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.
“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.

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.

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