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Road to the White House: 'Populist' Edwards struggles to be seen as serious

Sunday, January 04, 2004

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- John Edwards winces when asked if he's ever had a bad hair day. Of all the hurdles the senator from North Carolina faces in his uphill struggle for the Democratic nomination for president, it's the inescapable observation that he's "the pretty face" on the roster that seems to hurt the most.

Jim Cole, Associated Press


Age: 50

Political experience: U.S. Senate, 1998 to present.

Education: North Carolina State University, 1974; law degree, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1977.

Profession: Personal injury trial lawyer

Marital status: married in 1977 to fellow law student Elizabeth Anania

Children: Catharine (Cate), 21, a Princeton University senior; Emma Claire, 5; and Jack, 3. Eldest child, Wade, died at 16 in a traffic accident in 1996.

Money raised: $14.5 million (Oct. 15 report.)

Issues: Create new jobs in poor areas by giving venture capital for small business starts; ending Bush's tax cuts for those who earn over $200,000; creating a College for Everyone to offer a year of free tuition at public universities and community colleges in exchange for ten hours a week of work for a year.

Quote: "Too many Democrats too often act like rural America is just someplace to fly over between a fundraiser in Manhattan and a fundraiser in Beverly Hills. Rural America and small-town America are in trouble, and George W. Bush just doesn't get it."

Web site:;

Index to all Democratic candidate profiles

But even as former Vermont Gov. Howard B. Dean surges further ahead in the polls Edwards vows he will not step aside. He proved it when he announced in September he would not seek a second Senate term in order to press forward with his long-shot presidential bid.

His supporters insist that should Dean or one of the other front-runners slip on a political banana peel, Edwards would be right there. And they insist, despite the constant talk to the contrary, Edwards' real goal is not to be tapped as somebody else's vice president.

Edwards turned 50 last June, which helps counter the invariable descriptions of him as boyish-looking, but he is still the youngest among the nine Democratic candidates.

But he's also one of only two Southerners in the race -- something he says works in his favor. "We've never elected a Democrat president without winning at least five Southern states. We have to be able to compete in the South, and having a Southerner on top of the ticket does help."

If he can come in third in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, where the other Southerner, Gen. Wesley K. Clark is not campaigning but where Edwards has worked hard, visiting each of the state's 99 counties, and then win the South Carolina primary on Feb. 3, he's convinced all America will take a serious look at him.

Edwards, a highly successful trial lawyer before entering the Senate, admits he uses the same techniques to tweak his fellow lawmakers that he honed while talking to juries. He collects a short series of points and then speaks from a few notes. He once wrote, "The struggle to earn and keep credibility begins the first time that the jury sees you, and it does not end until the jury door closes."

Edwards, who calls himself a populist, came from perhaps the most improbable background of those currently seeking the White House. None of his four grandparents even finished high school.

His father, Wallace Edwards, a textile worker, moved his family from mill town to mill town around the South. His mother, Bobbie, worked at various jobs -- in the 4 p.m. to midnight shift in a bathing suit plant, in a post office and in refinishing furniture. When John was a teen, the family moved to the close-knit but sleepy small town of Robbins, N.C.

Inspired by the TV series "The Fugitive" and "Perry Mason," Edwards, at age 11, wrote an essay on, "Why I want to be a lawyer." In it, he said, "Probably the most important reason I want to be a defense attorney is that I would like to protect innocent people from blind justice the best I can" -- not understanding that blind justice is good.

Edwards started out at Clemson, but he wasn't big enough to get a football scholarship that would have allowed him to stay. Instead, he transferred to North Carolina State in Raleigh. He finished in three years while working part-time loading boxes for UPS and painting railroad crossings on state highways. In 1974 he entered law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where, he says, he felt out of place among the mostly well-to-do students.

In 1977, Edwards passed the North Carolina bar exam and on the same weekend married his fellow law student, Elizabeth Anania, the daughter of a Navy pilot, who had lived in Japan, Washington and Florida. He gave her an $11 ring and borrowed $2 for the $22 motel room where they had their one-night honeymoon. She had a one-year clerkship in Virginia Beach while he clerked in Raleigh. His first job as a full-fledged lawyer was in private practice in Nashville, Tenn., where their first child, Wade, was born. But Edwards says Nashville never felt like home and in May, 1981, the family moved to Raleigh.

Edwards got rich trying several hundred personal injury cases over 20 years. He has just finished renovating a multimillion-dollar, 1820s-era mansion in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, He also owns a beach house in North Carolina and a home in Raleigh. After his son died in an auto accident 1996, he yielded to a yen for public service and decided to go into politics, running for the Senate in 1998 and winning against incumbent Lauch Faircloth with 51 percent of the vote.

In his new book, "Four Trials," Edwards spells out why he thinks his pursuit of justice for the innocent in going after negligent corporations led him to think he'd be a good president fighting for the downtrodden and, incidentally, explaining why he thinks some of the massive judgments for victims against companies are justified.

Edwards writes, for example, of his first medical malpractice case -- a once cheerful salesman prescribed hefty doses of Antabuse to combat alcoholism. Instead, the man went into a coma with brain damage and when he woke up, he was a shell. Edwards helped win him $3.7 million.

Another case he cites involved a five-year-old child who was partially eviscerated, losing 50 percent of her large intestine and 80 percent of her small intestine, when she got stuck in the drain of a wading pool, her family desperately trying to break the suction. She now must be attached to an intravenous line from 12 to 14 hours a day, with feed tubes thrust into her stomach. The pain remains excruciating and the threat of infection constant.

Representing that girl, Edwards says, he learned there were other cases of children getting stuck and badly injured or killed because the manufacturer simply didn't use screws where it should have. He won a $25 million judgment against the company which he says in outrage "denied and avoided and obfuscated and covered up" in not doing the right thing.

While the candidates this year are eager to distinguish themselves and make themselves real to the voters, some issues are off limits for all of them. For Edwards, it's the death of his 16-year-old son. When asked how this has affected him, Edwards politely declines to answer, saying it's a personal family matter.

But he writes about it in his book, saying he couldn't help himself. His son Wade was often by his father's side, once climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with him. Edwards describes Wade as his best friend, a good writer, a young man who loved the UNC Tar Heels basketball team, who asked his father endless questions about his cases and was relentlessly fastidious. "I spent a fair amount of my time just being amazed by him," Edwards writes.

In April 1996, the family was taking two cars to go on vacation to their beach house on a barrier island near Wilmington, N.C. Wade was driving a black Jeep Grand Cherokee with a friend named Tyler in the passenger seat. Edwards wrote that he had complete confidence in his son as a careful driver. "I cannot tell you why such care was not enough that afternoon. I can only say that there are fierce crosswinds on certain stretches of that interstate and one of them swept my boy off the road. Tyler walked away. Wade was dead."

He added, "Nothing in my life has ever hit me and stripped everything away like my son's death."

In his memory, the family established a computer learning center and an undulating, tiered bench at their son's high school and endowed a chair at Edwards' law school. On the bench is an inscription from a Latin exam Wade wrote at age 15: "The modern hero is a person who does something everyone thinks they could do if they were a little stronger, a little faster, a little smarter, or a little more generous. Heroes in ancient times were the link between man and perfect beings, gods. Heroes in modern times are the link between man as he is and man as he could be."

Heartsick, Edwards, his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Cate decided to add to the family. They now have Emma Claire, 5, and John, 3.

In person, Edwards is invariably polite and courtly and can't seem to go more than a few minutes at a time without smiling. He describes himself as an optimist and says that he has learned two major lessons in life -- "that there will always be heartache and struggle and that people of strong will can make a difference."

He is running for president, he says, to make a difference in the lives of real people. While many political analysts think that as a relatively young politician he's got plenty of time for future runs, he insists that now is the time. He has learned life is short.

Ann McFeatters can be reached at or 1-202-662-7071.

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